Arts July 31, 2008

Art as an Adventure

Tony Foster Blurs the Lines Between Creative Work and Play

The English have a long history and deep fascination with the wild places of the earth. Search history, and you will find in most of the our planet’s uncharted zones—deepest jungles, hottest deserts, and both poles—that an Englishman has left a set of tracks (often the first), and either has left his lifeless body attached to them, or come back with a horrific tale to tell. One typically couched in dry, unemotional understatement (“Dr Livingston, I presume?”). Mix that sensibility with the artist-adventurer genome in the style of Moran, Catlin and Bierstadt, and the passion of a preservationist, and you may have a glimpse of Tony Foster. A man of exceptional fortitude, will, and talent.

“All of my work is about journeys . . . my paintings do not simply describe the look of the landscape. They also attempt to say something about the journey: observations, personal anecdotes, the flora and the fauna, geology, history and culture of the route . . . ” —Tony Foster

In that summation, in his usual simple and unadorned style, Tony Foster seems to lay before us his life’s work and how he
creates it.

Although Foster would have us believe that he would rather be recognized for his art than his adventures, when listening to one of his presentations, we soon realize that this assertion bears a false note, and is more than a little disingenuous. Hearing the fervor with which he speaks about an outing to make art (and they are never easy), it is immediately discernible that just the acts of going to, returning from, and surviving the journey are as integral to his work (and maybe to his soul) as the paintings he brings home. And we as audience are doubly rewarded: first, by the visual record, the painting; second, by the simple descriptions along the bottom of the work of all that was encountered in the course of making it.

From the spectacular to the sublime—the grand vistas, peaks, vast canyons, and icebergs hold no larger place in the artist’s attention than the inchworm crossing his notebook, or the fawn edging down to drink as he paints nearby. All are faithfully recorded and held with an equality of interest. By viewing his work, or listening to one of his narratives, we are treated to the intimacies of the project, as well as enlightened about the process. Although, here again, if omission is a form of untruth, then Mr. Foster stands accused. “Hike Nankoweap canyon—learn the symptoms of dehydration” reads a diary line beneath a painting. At the very least, he is a master of understatement.

Just as Tony Foster refuses to insert himself into his paintings, he is extremely reluctant to dramatize the often incredible difficulties, dangers and physical sacrifices that he endures while creating them. Most of his descriptions are simple, laconic, three-to-five word constructs. Thus, “my commute: scrambling up rock faces—swinging on lianas—slippery mud slopes above 100’ cliffs—wading waist deep through water” or we read along the diary line at the bottom of his work, “We arrive at El Rio Platano . . . as dusk and rain are falling—a miserable start—muddy—cold rain—wet clothes—heavy rafts—while shooting waterfalls I’m thrown out of the raft twice—pitch camp in a series of thrashing rainstorms—start work sheltering under an umbrella—painting site underwater—I work as best I can.” Obviously, the truth of these incidents far surpasses the telling and there is as much between the lines as the lines themselves.

The difficulties in writing this piece were compounded by two major obstacles: ignorance and ignorance (both my own): one, about the act of painting; the other, about the art of painting. My approach to art is much like my approach to wine: If I like it, it’s good! Of course, that’s a purely subjective point of view, but luckily (both for me and for them), I do not have to make a living as arbiter of other people’s tastes. For me, art, as with wine, holds little mystery. Not particularly attuned to nuance and subtlety, I merely require that it be satisfying on a personal level; again, letting others decide for themselves what is “good.”

Herein lay the dilemma: How to write about painting and a painter when I possess such little knowledge of the actual craft. In research, I found others’ writing about Tony Foster and his work to be so knowledgeable and articulate as to be intimidating, if not paralyzing. >>>



Eventually, in the artist’s own writing, I was able to find the thread that attached me to this story. Here it was that I found myself able to evaluate the truth of his work, not in the knowledge of art, but through my own intimate familiarity (at least in this part of the world) of where he sat when he created it. And, just as importantly, the routes he took to get there—the pathways trodden, hills climbed, and rivers floated. Although unable and unqualified to write about his art, by reviewing his paintings and reading his diary notes, I realized that I have walked the same trails, stood on many of the same windswept ridges, and stared the same fires to sleep in the river camps. Often with the very same companions, albeit sometimes as much as 20 years apart. There I found a knowledge and a kinship that qualified me to judge, if not his work, then the truth in the work he presents.

Although we had journeyed only once together (Grand Canyon river trip in 2000), over the years and miles our paths had crossed and re-crossed many times. I discovered that Foster painted scenes along the Salmon River that I grew up with as a boy, lakes that I had camped beside and mountains I had climbed as a young man, and many of the rivers, peaks, and valleys of the West that have been home to me. All, captured, rendered faithfully and made alive by Foster’s art.

For all of its size, the American West contains a relatively small community. Those who travel through it are constricted and directed in their passage by geography. Rivers, mountains and valleys dictate our routes—the classic basin and range topography. We, by necessity, tread the paths that all in our known history have trodden. Rather than constraint, this creates a wonderful sense of sharing and fellowship with comrades of the trail, past and present. So it is that working at Lemhi Pass, Foster was able to record with paint the same view that two centuries before Meriwether Lewis had described in his journal when he first realized that he stood on the spine of the American continent. A shared moment 200 years apart! This inhabits the heart of what Tony Foster does—record that moment as it is now, in hopes that we humans will have no hand in changing it for the worse.

“As a conservationist, I see it as my role to return from journeys in unspoiled places with evidence of the natural beauty still to be found. My hope is that when people see my paintings it will strengthen their resolve to protect what wilderness remains. In the case of Lewis and Clark’s route, it is a bit late for such a purist attitude, but I thought it was my job to seek out what precious jewels of the natural landscape still exist and celebrate them. Another artist might have decided to feature the desecration that had been perpetrated on the landscape in the last 200 years, and this would be a valid response, but my work is celebratory, not condemnatory. I realize that we all share a collective guilt for the damage we are doing to our planet, but ever the optimist, I hope we can improve on our dismal record before it is too late.”

Through his work, Foster has developed a love of the American West and, specifically, this part of it—Sun Valley, and the pathways that proceed from it. Having painted all over the world, and been witness to much of its wonderful and terrible beauty, he seems to have found a kind of artistic spirit ground in this area and its surroundings. This is evidenced by four working visits here in the last 14 years. Each was an attempt to capture artistically much of what we who live here enjoy, and have access to every day. His first foray to the area was in 1994 at the invitation of Michael and Leslie Engl . . . this resulted in the exhibition “Wilderness Journeys—Watercolour Diaries Of The Idaho Rockies” at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in 1995. This was considered a great success, so Kristin Poole, Michael and Leslie, Bill and Annie Vanderbilt and Foster planned “After Lewis and Clark . . . ”, which showed in 2001. Next, at the invitation of the Sun Valley Center, he participated in a descent of the main Salmon River. That trip, as part of an exhibit entitled “The Whole Salmon” (which involved even more complex logistics and a larger cast of Sun Valley characters) ran the entire river length, starting at its headwaters (a pond just over Galena Summit), and ending 406 miles and 49 paintings later in its confluence with the Snake River.

Foster’s last visit here, this past summer, kept him in our own backyard for a show, “Rocky Days and Other Journeys,” at the Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum. For that presentation, he made paintings of local favorites—scenes in the Boulders, the Pioneers, Alice Lake and Shangri-la in the Sawtooths. This trip brought about a change in his working methods. With Gail Severn’s encouragement, Foster set himself the task of completing each painting here in the U.S., which was unusual. Typically, he will begin several paintings in a given region, or thematic subject, such as “After Lewis and Clark” or “The Whole Salmon.” All are begun on site and a portion of each painting is completed at that time. The rest is fully drawn and annotated with a private system of color notes. Foster never uses photographs, relying exclusively on memory and instinct. >>>



“Generally, I simply draw the colour areas and have my own shorthand for the colour to be applied (PG, BU, AC over YO for example: Paynes Grey, Burnt Umber, Alazerian Crimson over an undercoating of Yellow Ochre) or “sick”—an eau de Nile Green with a touch of Chrome Yellow.

In the end, it’s all about aesthetics—what looks right when applied. My eye tells me immediately if, when a colour is applied, it strikes a false note, so I may completely ignore my notes when I get back to the studio, and use my memory and judgment instead.”
The work then is hauled back to Tywardorth, the small village in Cornwall where he and his wife, Ann (also an artist), reside. There, tucked up against the fierce winters that visit that wild coast, he completes each painting.

Once I ask him, with his awards and acclaim, if he was considered famous in his hometown.

Foster says his mates at the local pub in Tywardorth (once described by Daniel Defoe as “a village of little note”) are mostly unaware of the sometimes exhausting and dangerous nature of his work. Or the esteem in which he is held by the larger world. And, after a prolonged absence, they might chide him about “the missus” keeping him away from his pint. Never mind that he may have just returned from an expedition to the Amazon, freezing in Greenland, baking in the Grand Canyon or suffering altitude sickness near Everest, all in the pursuit of his art. A fact he is unlikely to enlighten them with.

There is not enough room here to compile the list of Tony Foster’s accomplishments, adventures, travels, and works of art. In keeping with the British (and Foster’s) penchant for understatement, just the list of his catalog titles and major journeys from 1982 to the present may testify to the passion and dedication he brings to his work, and to the world:

“Travels without a donkey in the Cevennes—in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson”; “Thoreau’s Country—walks and canoe journeys through New England, U.S.A.”; “John Muir’s High Sierra-—a 250-mile walk in the Sierra Nevada, U.S.A.”; “Exploring the Grand Canyon—400 miles walking the Grand Canyon, Arizona, U.S.A”; Rainforest Diaries—watercolours from Costa Rica”; “Arid Lands-—watercolour diaries from journeys across deserts”; “Ice and Fire—watercolour diaries of volcano journeys”; “After Lewis and Clark—explorer artists and the American West”; “The Whole Salmon”;“Watermarks—watercolour diaries from swamps to icebergs”.

Foster’s current project (his most ambitious yet) is titled “Searching for a Bigger Subject.” With it, the artist brings huge (6’x6’) iconic works painted on site of several sides of Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon from both rims. The next major exhibition for those works is scheduled for October of 2008 at galleries in San Francisco and New York, with a show in Sun Valley being negotiated. At the same time, Foster’s large-format, four-color book, Painting at the Edge of the World, will be available.

The list above and the work before him are almost as exhausting as the journeys, presenting to us an extraordinary man leading an extraordinary life.

So we come back around to truth! And whether or not we should believe Mr. Foster when he denies the importance of his reputation as adventurer versus that of artist. Knowing Foster, first as a comrade of the trek, and now as an artist and writer, I feel qualified to say his real truth is in his work, his humanity, and his heart. The rest being moot because, fortunately for him (and for us), when the artist departs, be it for the Arctic or the Amazon, he will be unable to leave the adventurer at home.


This article appears in the Summer 2007 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.