Art as an Adventure
Tony Foster Blurs the Lines Between Creative Work and Play
Photography: Craig Wolfrom
Tony Foster's painting do not simply describe the look of the landscape, they also attempt to say something about the journey.
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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
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. >>>