Art as an Adventure
Tony Foster Blurs the Lines Between Creative Work and Play
Photography: Craig Wolfrom
(page 2 of 3)
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. >>>