Wilderness and Watercolors: A Hidden Museum Pays Homage to the Staggering Artwork of an Adventurer | New


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As a child, Palo Altan Jane Woodward dreamed of living in a museum. She spent her summers visiting her grandmother in Manhattan and loved to fantasize about what it would be like to live in the Metropolitan Museum, like the characters in her favorite book, “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E, did. . Frankweiler “. by EL Königsburg.

Woodward grew up studying geology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Stanford University, then business at Stanford, but has always retained his love for art and museums alongside his love for the wilderness, especially the American West. She now teaches energy and environment courses at Stanford and is a founder and managing partner of MAP Energy, a renewable energy and natural gas investment company, according to Stanford.

Decades ago, she said, she visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and was struck by a chance encounter with several watercolors by Tony Foster. They depicted the High Sierras of California on a trip Foster, a British watercolor artist and explorer, took along the John Muir Trail.

Her encounter with these works sparked in her a passion for the work of the painter which, decades later, will lead her to create one of the first museums on the peninsula and one of the only museums dedicated to a living artist in the world. , The Foster.

Despite its 14,000 square foot footprint, it’s easy to miss The Foster if you’re not looking for it. A former ambulance storage facility for Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, the museum is tucked away in any corner of the warehouse district of Palo Alto in 940 Commercial Street

The exterior of the museum is covered in climbing vines, an exterior suitable for an installation celebrating wild art, while its interior, which has no natural light, is perfect for housing light-sensitive watercolors. Walk inside the space and it’s easy to lose track of time, absorbed by Foster’s bright and engaging outdoor works created during 17 travels around the world.

The Foster houses the permanent collection of the Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation, founded by Woodward, and presents two of these 17 “Voyages” of Foster’s works, from the collections entitled “Sacred Places” and “Exploring Beauty”. Each “Trip” represents the value of a full trip of collected works of art. Free entry.

Tony Foster is a unique artist for a number of reasons, museum co-directors Eileen Howard and Anne Baxter explained during a recent visit to the museum. The Cornish painter carries art supplies with him all over the world, using lightweight materials and a small tin of paint, but always with a full set of brushes and – as an Englishman worthy of the name – adequate supplies for afternoon tea.

Painting in extreme environments, he also pioneered new watercolor techniques, such as mixing gin in water at very high altitudes while painting in the Himalayas, or the use of plastic vellum and of colored pencils to paint underwater coral reefs.

Kristin Poole, artistic director of The Foster, writes that Foster’s work draws on the traditions of artists like JMW Turner who emphasize the ferocity of nature and the insignificance of man, as well as exploratory artists like Thomas Moran, George Catlin and William Henry Jackson.

His process “requires being able to withstand grueling physical conditions as well as considerable patience while waiting for the site, weather and time of day to cooperate, reinforcing messages that none of this – whatever. the act of actually seeing, locating and translating the site, or honoring the humiliating forces of nature – is easy to do, ”she said.

A signature of his work is that next to his paintings are what are called “keepsakes” – small keepsakes, whether taken or returned, which highlight the details of the environment in which they are located. Foster thought. For example, there might be a study of leaf colors with a painting of an autumn forest, or small framed water sample vials next to a river painting.

The Sacred Places collection represents Foster’s 15th trip to the four corners of the American Southwest. The Exploring Beauty Collection represents Foster’s 16th journey, in which he asked various luminaries in science, exploration, writing and the environment to nominate what they believed to be the most beautiful places of the world. He then went to these places and painted them from his own perspective.

After this first observation of Tony Foster’s artwork, Woodward worked diligently to find out more. The museum provided few curatorial details on the art, so she kept calling the museum. Eventually, she learned that Foster was represented by the Montgomery Gallery in San Francisco. Over the years, she has become a dedicated buyer of Foster’s work. Many years later, Woodward invited Foster to join a trip she was planning on the San Juan River.

During this trip, Woodward recalls, she began to think that there was some kind of “market failure” that there was no art institution with enough space to show a “trip. “complete or a complete set of works of art from one of Foster’s voyages.

“It was a very organic evolution, to recognize that if I wanted to keep Tony’s travels intact and share them with the public, we needed a space. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve called it a museum, ”she said. The museum, she added, is also used as a sort of staging area for other potentially larger museums to see what one of Foster’s journeys looks like in its entirety from a the conversation. The foundation also works with other museums seeking to showcase Foster’s work and provides curatorial support through the shared expertise of Howard and Baxter.

Since the museum opened in 2016, said Woodward, one of the most gratifying things has been hearing friends and visitors to the museum tell him that the art evoked memories of specific places they were. gone or had inspired them to go out. the desert by themselves.

“I love Tony’s art because it’s just beautiful to see, but I love using it to have these conversations about all of these layers around the place,” she said. “I firmly believe that thinking about where and why it is important to protect is really important.”

Howard and Baxter were quieter than expected while talking about how the pandemic has affected museum operations.

Yes, The Foster has been closed for a long time, and it has been difficult to communicate that it is open again by reservation, but overall there have been some benefits, they said.

For starters, because travel was restricted, Foster himself was actually more available than he might otherwise be for interviews and archival work, they said.

Foster also kept busy during the pandemic with a project called “Lockdown Diaries,” while facing a strict quarantine in England that limited time outdoors to one hour a day. During this hour, he would find new pedestrian routes to walk around his neighborhood and new objects to study in his works. Over time, he’s created some lovely little studies, including a 56-day set of designs that have been turned into a print that the Foster sells to support nature-focused nonprofits, both locally. and internationally.

Dealing with travel restrictions due to the pandemic, he said, “made me study my garden more in depth, and I found great joy in studying small subjects in depth. The more you watch. the closer, the more you see! “

Foster said a lesson he plans to pursue is: “Be patient and find joy where you are, even if you are confined to a small area. “

Returning to the Palo Alto museum, Howard and Baxter said they try to make it known that the museum is not only open again, but that every booking almost guarantees visitors to have the museum to themselves for about one. time.

Foster’s next trip, scheduled for the Green River, has been postponed this year, but a special exhibition of his work is currently on display at the Royal Cornwall Museum titled “Fragile Planet: Watercolor Journeys into Wild Places”.

In recent years, those familiar with Foster’s work also say he has made his voice heard more advocating against climate change. While his work has long espoused the “leave no trace” principle, he expressed shock at the environmental changes he observed on more recent trips, Baxter said.

“For almost 40 years I have made my art in the great wilderness of the world – rainforests, desert mountains, canyons, the Arctic and the tropics. No one can spend long periods in these places without worry about their future, ”he said in an email.

“While painting in the primary rainforest, I heard chainsaws moan and huge trees crash to the ground. I have canoeed down clear rivers where gold dredges poison the water with mercury; I camped in pristine deserts knowing that prehistoric water tables were being sucked up. In the Arctic, as the ice melts, mining companies settle in pristine landscapes. Sitting underwater while diving, I have drawn myriads of fish of unimaginable variety and beauty to discover a year later the bleached corals and the extinct fish.

“I hope that when people find out about my work, they will be prompted to strengthen their desire to protect the planet’s ecosystems. I speak more clearly now whenever I am offered a platform.”

Go to thefoster.org for more information or to book.

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