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Tony Foster: Watercolor painter and backpacker explores the Green River

 Tony Foster shows off his palette of paints he uses in the backcountry.
Kamila Kuldelska
Wyoming Public Radio
Tony Foster shows off his palette of paints he uses in the backcountry.

Tony Foster stood in a special exhibition gallery at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. He was surrounded by 16 of his watercolors that are all depicting the Green River. Foster wore a light coat and a small brimmed straw hat and held a tote bag.

“So this is the painting that starts the exhibition off, and it's really a painting of where the lake turns into the river,” Foster said.

 Foster Green River Lakes painting
Kamila Kuldelska
Wyoming Public Media
Foster Green River Lakes Painting

This painting is of Green River Lakes just north of Pinedale. Underneath the large watercolor painting but inside the frame is an actual necklace made by a Shoshone jewelry maker.

Each piece Foster has ever painted in the last 40 years includes these types of things. He calls them souvenirs. The reason he included this necklace was because of the colors.

“It reflects exactly and beautifully the color of the plants in the foreground. I was thrilled to bits to find that,” he said

Underneath the necklace is a small painting. It’s a study of leaves, “that was done when it started to rain. I couldn't work on the big picture anymore and I simply sat in my tent and painted these leaves,” Foster recalled.

Next to the leaf study is a map displaying where this landscape is, plus a segment of Foster’s diary from the backpacking trip.

“September the 12th. Breakfast water frozen into a solid block. Worked badly in fierce sunshine. End the day exhausted and despondent. Campfire, steak, single malt and conversation lift my spirits,” Foster read from the frame on the wall.

Foster hasn’t always done these kinds of works, though. He painted his entire life, but his first real job in the artistic world was as a pop artist using second-hand imagery.

“I got fed up with doing that. And I thought, ‘Why am I painting hot rods and bunny girls?’ I mean, I know nothing about hot rods, really. I just like the way they look. Bunny girls, I'm sure, are very nice. But I've never met one,” Foster said. “And so I thought it began to feel false to me. And so I thought I should paint about the things that I care about. What do I care about? I care about the environment for a start.”

So he started combining two of his favorite passions: hiking and painting. It turned out people loved the stories that came along with it.

 Tony Foster Gallary Entrance
Kamila Kuldelska
Wyoming Public Media
Introduction to the Exhibit

“I remember once I was camping, and I heard this tremendous noise at night, when I was asleep. I woke up with a tremendous noise. I thought, ‘What the hell is that?’ And I thought it sounded like thunder or gunfire, or just the most extraordinary noise. I realized it was a slug in my ear,” Foster said. “And so I'd tell people that kind of story. And people love that stuff.”

He’s shared his stories of painting coral reefs underwater, as well as on Mt. Everest, in Death Valley and now following Green River from its headwaters to its confluence with the Colorado River.

“[The] Green river was extraordinary and beautiful, and I thought actually that [it] would make an exhibition because I knew it rose in the Wind River Range where I’d never been,” Foster said.

And so the exhibit Tony Foster: Watercolour Diaries from the Green Riverwas born. Foster spent 30 plus days at various locations on the Green River. That included a couple of days in the Wind River Mountains at the source of the river. Karen McWhorter, Collier-Read Director of Curatorial, Education and Museum Services at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, came along for that adventure.

 Foster Gallary paintings
Kamila Kuldelska
Wyoming Public Radio
Watercolors of the Green River

“I got a bit of a sense of how challenging it is to paint at large scale en plein air out of doors. From start to nearly finish,” McWhorter said. “Tony's kit is exceptionally light. So he has a very small palette of paints, he's got it here. It looks like a makeup compact.”

Foster chimed in with a list of things he brings backpacking.

“I've got my mixing palette, which is a Tupperware lid of a Tupperware box. I like them very much. Loads of brushes. I usually carry about 15 or 20 brushes. Probably too many. But I'm always paranoid. I'm not gonna have the right brush,” he said. “What else? Something to put the water in a stool to sit on. That's it. That's all you need.”

“Tony, you're forgetting about your tea setup,” McWhorter said.

“Oh, that's true. Yes, every two hours, I stop for a tea break. So without tea, there's no painting,” Foster said. “Just sit down, brew tea, contemplate the landscape, think about where you are. You know, just enjoy the view. For heaven's sake, have a chat.”

And for David Schendel, who is making a documentary film on Foster, that’s what makes him so special. It’s his ability to pause and contemplate.

His eye…the way that he looks at the landscape. I mean, that is what makes him unique amongst all landscape artists, I believe,” Schendel said. “It just clicks in his head. You can see it when he finds that spot.”

Even though he’s pushing 80, Foster can’t imagine doing anything else.

“I said to my wife the other day, ‘What do you think I’d do if I retired? She said, ‘I know exactly what you do.’ So I said, ‘What?.’ ‘You’d sit around twiddling your thumbs, you get really frustrated, and then you go off and start painting, you might just as well carry on doing what you're doing.’ So why not?” Foster said with a laugh.

The exhibit is open through October 22nd in Cody.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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