Watercolor wilderness

New gallery is devoted to Tony Foster's environmental art

The new Foster Art and Wilderness Foundation has a clearly defined mission: "to inspire reflection, discussion and education about art, wilderness and the natural world." The foundation, located at 940 Commercial St. in the industrial area of south Palo Alto, takes the form of a bespoke museum dedicated to the watercolor landscape work of just one man, painter Tony Foster.

How does it feel to have a museum dedicated solely to your art?

"It's astonishing," Foster said, "and beyond my wildest dreams." Foster, who lives in Cornwall, England, is a spry, genial 70 year old who has managed to combine two passions in life. He had long been a "trekker" and began his artistic career as a Pop artist back in the 1970s.

"The problem with Pop was that you were always borrowing from existing sources," explained Foster. "I realized that I should do work about things I care about."

He decided to begin documenting his travels, using the method of plein air painting. But Foster did not just stop by the roadside and set up his easel. His idea of painting in the wild consists of hiking for hours to remote locations, finding his ideal inspiration, setting up camp and staying on site for a week or two at a time. Because oil paint takes so long to dry, watercolor is the perfect medium for the peripatetic Foster.

He has learned to travel light, with watercolors in a small box the size of a wallet, and a custom-made artist board that holds the paper. He has worked in wind and sand storms, blizzards and torrential downpours. His love of nature and curiosity about the environment has taken him to Mt. Everest, the Maldives, the Andes and the Grand Canyon. Wherever he goes, he usually has a small band of friends or collectors who assist with necessary chores -- such as fetching water and preparing food -- but Foster is at his drawing board 10 to 12 hours a day.

"I'm really a boring traveling companion," he joked.

Jane Woodward, a Stanford geologist, CEO of MAP (a natural gas and wind energy investment firm), and Foster's main patron, would disagree. She has gone along on trips with the artist and has the distinction of owning artworks from all but four of his journeys. Woodward, who had never collected art before, was first introduced to Foster's work in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in the late 1980s.

"I was completely ambushed by this beautiful watercolor that transported me to the Sierra Mountains in such a powerful way," she said.

She became intent on collecting more of his work, especially when she learned that he worked in series (30 or 40 paintings), creating a full visual record of a journey to a wilderness location. Citing what she calls a "market failure" on the part of most galleries and museums, she feels strongly that Foster's work needs to be seen in its groups in order to feel the full impact.

She started the foundation in order to reunite Foster's work by series, then began planning the museum facility five years ago. Although she is hopeful that individuals and school groups will visit, her intention for the museum is to promote future exhibitions of Foster's work and, in the process, inspire people to connect with and value wilderness spaces.

"The primary purpose of the museum is to encourage curators to come and borrow Tony's work for their institutions," Woodward said.

To that end, the foundation will loan the work by series, with supplementary materials and exhibition fees waived for venues that qualify.

The inaugural exhibition is titled "Sacred Places" and includes scenes from the Four Corners region of the Southwest. Spectacular rock formations, canyons, high desert and flowing streams are rendered in an earthy palette of tan, red and ochre. Because of their large scale (some are 7 feet by 4 feet), the viewer feels as though they could walk right into the site. In "Sedona," the artist has encapsulated the awe-inspiring beauty of the towering Cathedral Rock, jutting up out of the rolling desert landscape, punctuated by the green of prickly pear cactus. Not only does Foster portray the scene, but he also makes notes about weather, wildlife and his mood that day. He collects small artifacts or "talismans," such as rocks, feathers or beads, which are then attached to the bottom of the watercolor, with his notes, creating a record similar to the journal entries of explorers long ago.

Foster usually creates about two thirds of the painting on site, completing the work using his written notes (but not photographs) in his Cornwall studio. While he used to travel three or four months out of the year, he has now reduced that time to six weeks. It is not the easiest way to make art, he acknowledged, but, "when I get home and finish the scene it's all worth it."

Both Foster and Woodward are motivated by the need to celebrate and conserve the Earth's unspoiled places.

"So many places, like the Amazon rainforest, are being destroyed," said Foster. "We have to save them while we can."

The Foster Art and Wilderness Foundation will be open to the public, free of charge, by appointment. For more information, visit The Foster.

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