Tony Foster | In Context
Fostering an Artistic Tradition
[Essay from the exhibition catalogue Sacred Places: Watercolour Diaries from the American Southwest]
For the past thirty years the inspiration of sublime, beautiful, and wild places has captured the imagination of Tony Foster. He has painted the Arctic, arid lands and rain forests, land and water, but no place has focused his talents more than the complex environment of the American West. Painters began recording the West in 1820, first by accompanying scientific government surveys and, on the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, as individual artists seeking to experience the unique people, flora, fauna, and topography of this vast region of the continental United States. As the twentieth century dawned, there was a growing number of resident artists living and working west
of the Mississippi River. Foster, on the one hand, is unique as a foreign artist constantly roaming the vast regions of the American West; on the other hand, he continues an almost two-century-old tradition from both Europe and the United States. His project exploring sacred places of the West can be seen as a confluence of these traditions, his own experience working in the landscape for extended periods of time, and a new idea of what can make a location “sacred.”
Foster draws influence … from the British tradition of walking treks, often accompanied by diaries that record the efforts of the writer or artist to carefully observe nature in order to personally understand the environment in depth.
There has been an important landscape-painting tradition in Foster’s native country of England since the eighteenth century, which includes documentary work, powerfully sublime images, and depictions of the absolute beauty of specific locales. J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) and John Constable (1776–1837) achieved towering leadership in the last two categories, as recent major exhibitions dedicated to their works attest, while more intimate documentary watercolors were produced by lesser-known artists such as Paul Sandby (1731–1809), Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), and John Sell Cotman (1782–1842). Foster draws influence from all these earlier painters as well as from the British tradition of walking treks, often accompanied by diaries that record the efforts of the writer or artist to carefully observe nature in order to personally understand the environment in depth. When looking at Foster’s largest watercolors, often four by six feet and mostly executed on-site, one can feel the awe of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite while at the same time being able to read his notes about his experiences and personal observations while making that specific picture, written in pencil on the sheet. He often leaves in the picture, obscured by pigment, his notes on how to finish the painting once he has it back in his studio in Cornwall, England. His practice of including small found objects or geologic remnants and souvenirs from the site adds another layer of authenticity and understanding for the viewer. Making clear the “process” of art making is an aspect of some of the most innovative contemporary art. Perhaps this is why such a breadth of individuals celebrate Foster’s paintings.
Though Tony Foster is not American, his work can be seen as carrying on the tradition of distinctly American artists who worked in the West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Samuel Seymour (c. 1775–after 1823), an English-born Philadelphia painter, accompanied Stephen Long’s survey of what is today Wyoming in 1820. Joining him was a fellow Philadelphian, Titian Ramsay Peale (1799–1885), who, interestingly, hired on to the expedition as its zoologist, demonstrating the scientific interests of the earliest Anglo artists exploring the vast territories of the far West. Their work consisted of field sketches, illustrative drawings, and watercolors, many of which have border notes confirming their careful observations. Stylistically Foster’s work relates even more closely to the watercolors of Thomas Moran (1837–1926), also born in England (see p. 15). Moran moved to Philadelphia as a young man and studied to be an illustrator and landscape painter. He was given the opportunity to join Ferdinand V. Hayden’s survey exploring Yellowstone in 1871 and John Wesley Powell’s expedition to the Grand Canyon the following year, and his career would come to be defined by his western paintings, especially of the Grand Canyon. His working method was to make sketches on-site, noting on the page specific color use, weather conditions, and outlines for later use in his eastern studio, for both finished watercolors and oil paintings.
The notion of an artist working for extended periods in the open at remote, beautiful, and sacred places has at first a rather romantic connotation. It is anything but simple and fluid.
The notion of an artist working for extended periods in the open at remote, beautiful, and sacred places has at first a rather romantic connotation. It is anything but simple and fluid. First, there is the difficulty of arriving in wilderness areas and physically working
to discover the correct locale to express the “sense of place.” Foster has to be extremely efficient while packing his materials. His small paint box, not much bigger than a deck of cards and containing only a handful of colors, is a surprise. Moreover, he is often not carrying a sketchbook or small watercolor papers but instead has a single large sheet of paper rolled in an aluminum tube with several smaller sheets. Once he selects his view, he builds an outdoor easel to execute the picture, working for many days. He hopes for cooperating light conditions. He is totally exposed to the conditions: heat, cold, storms, and animals. Especially in the arid West, where he made Sacred Places, watercolors dry exceedingly fast. To counter this, Foster has invented ways to remoisturize his pictures at a later time in the comfort of his small home studio.
What does make [Foster] special is his ability to communicate his own sense of wonder to the viewers of his paintings.
Interpretation of the American West can be many things to many people. Each individual or group can bring meaning to the landscape. The Navajo culture celebrates four sacred mountains that border its large reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. Many Native American nations have specific burial and ceremonial sites. Other places—like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite—take on iconic meanings as a result of being visited by millions of people from all over the world for many decades, and their photographs and written descriptions practically canonize each location. Early Anglo explorers who first came upon these locations were in such awe of the spirituality of the places that they gave them names derived from various religions and ancient cultures. Foster’s sense of discovery and his decision to create a specific work of art are not much different. What does make him special is his ability to communicate his own sense of wonder to the viewers of his paintings. In years to come, his tremendous dedication to his art, as well as the exceptional quality of his work, will be celebrated by individuals moved by art, geography, geology, ecology, sustainability, and more. It is the fusion of these interests that makes us human.
JAMES K. BALLINGER | DIRECTOR EMERITUS, BRITISH ART MUSEUM