Tony Foster | In Context

Tony Foster painting at Point Sublime, Grand Canyon, 2004. 

Tony Foster’s wilderness diaries are born from a desire to see and know wild places. Through acute observation, honed aesthetic instincts and remarkable skill, he makes visible some of the most astonishing and beautiful natural places on earth. Foster approaches each journey, indeed each painting, with the commitment to not only record what is there but to take the time to see it. His is an active way of looking that is reflected in precise mark making, an attention to detail, as well as a recognition, through his diaries and souvenirs, of the specifics of place, time and sometimes history. 

Tony Foster’s hyper engaged way of seeing and painting place is part of a long tradition of artists. His sweeping, dramatic skies recall the work of 19th century British watercolorist J.M.W. Turner whose churning seas and atmospheric canvases demonstrated both the ferocity of nature as well as the insignificance of man. But Foster’s closest artistic heritage is with 19th century artists who adventured into the American West to record and make visible the treasures encountered there. Inspired by the reports of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery, explorer artists like Thomas Moran, George Catlin, and William Henry Jackson went west to document the topology, geology and people in the lands west of the Mississippi. 

The mystique and manifold possibilities of America’s great western frontier propelled these 19th century artists to explore and yet their efforts, like Tony Foster’s, went beyond just documenting place. These lands were reflected in their art as wondrous, sublime places full of peril, possibility, religiosity and awe. Like his 19th century predecessors, Tony Foster uses his painterly skill in celebration of nature and the exquisite forces evident in wild places. Foster presents the work not only to encourage others to witness these monumental lands but also to suggest that we would be wise to preserve and protect them. His process, which necessitates being able to withstand grueling physical conditions as well as significant patience while waiting for site, weather and time of day to cooperate, reinforces the message that none of this—whether it’s the act of truly seeing, locating and translating site, or honoring the humbling forces of nature—is easily accomplished.

Foster joins other 20th and 21st century artists in being more interested in experiencing rather than simply observing place. His absorption of site is 100% engaged as he shares with us through each painting’s diary details of temperature, and physical struggle, altitude and barometer, creature interruptions and human moods. Like other contemporary artists, Foster links his artwork about the land to real time and the specifics of situation. Fellow British artists Andy Goldsworthy, Hamish Fulton and Richard Long also make treks into the land and, working with what is present, create permanent and temporary pieces. Their artworks, like Foster’s, mark both the passage of time as well as the temporality and fragility of site—recognizing that what is built and evident at one moment may be gone at the next. 

While Tony Foster’s way of making plein air paintings requires an intensity, rigor and patience that is rare in the 21st century, his commitment to revealing the specifics and beauty of place are part of a continuum of artists whose experience in nature has resulted in work that inspires us to participate in the act of seeing and being in nature. 

Kristin Poole | Artistic Director, Foster Art and Wilderness Foundation


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