Even a casual observation of Tony Foster’s watercolor landscapes is enough to lock the viewer in. His exhibit, Searching for a Bigger Subject: Watercolour Diaries from Everest and the Grand Canyon, which opens at the Museum of Northern Arizona Nov. 16, depicts two subjects: the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest. Drama infuses both, unfolding with grand wisps of wind and sweeping vistas that are beautiful and dangerous.
The paintings in Foster’s exhibit, 22 in total, are intimately crafted by an artist who not only finds a muse in these places, but has lived and breathed in them for extended periods of time.
A deeper look and one finds scribbles of Foster’s handwriting along the borders of each painting detailing the artist’s journey — sights, sounds and smells. Even deeper and one finds more handwriting in the clouds, in rocks covered with snow, notations about which colors to use, what movements to make. “Start painting, smoke from fires in North Rim fills the canyon,” he writes in one painting. “A bold flock of nuthatches flip between KO and me as we eat lunch, leave midafternoon.”
“They’re very much like journals,” Kristan Hutchison, marketing director at MNA, said. “They’re incredible pieces of art, but [he’s giving you] that feeling of immediacy, not just of place, but of the person who’s looking at the place…And the journey that it took to get there. What the weather was like and what had to happen. There’s a whole story there.”
Foster began work for Searching for a Bigger Subject in 2004, traveling through sometimes treacherous terrain — almost losing his life in the process — to get to both the Grand Canyon and Everest. But the story of Foster’s travels goes back to 1988 when, upon the insistence of a friend, Foster finally visited the Grand Canyon.
"Once I dropped down over the rim with my pack and hiked around, I felt somehow I've got to make this work. It's such an extraordinary place,” Foster said.
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Part of Foster’s reluctance to paint the canyon came from the overabundance of artists, photographers and writers making art inspired by or about the Grand Canyon. Hiking down with his friend enlightened him to the idea that, at least with painters, no two paintings of the canyon are the same.
"If you were to stand two photographers side by side with the same Nikon, they'd take the same photograph, but if you were to stand two painters side by side they'd come up with two completely different paintings,” Foster said. “That's the excitement of art. It's a view seen through a personality."
One finds Foster’s personality in those scribbles, as well as in the artifacts he brings back from these places. Below each painting one finds ancient arrowheads, rocks, snowmelt contained in a small glass jar sealed with wax, and more. These pieces, beyond serving as keepsakes, help the artist visualize more intensely the details of these places, the subtle colors that bring a singularity to the works you won’t find anywhere else.
Watercolor paintings, in fact, are among the most sensitive and difficult objects to maintain. Everything from light to humidity affects the works’ stability. While the museum sometimes hosts exhibits for six months to a year, Searching for a Bigger Subject will only be on display for 12 weeks, which is a standard window when it comes to watercolor works.
As the Grand Canyon celebrates its centennial this year, MNA curator Alan Petersen said Foster’s exhibit highlights the significance of the milestone.
“It’s not just a painting. It’s a record of interaction,” Pertersen said. “It adds another layer of understanding of the place. I think that it’s not just a visual record, but a record of place and location.”