Brower Center exhibit showcases legacy of conservationist and North Face cofounder Douglas Tompkins

| Publication: East Bay Times | Author: Tom Lochner

BERKELEY — Douglas Tompkins, a wealthy former Bay Area entrepreneur and sportsman who renounced the corporate life to dedicate himself to exploration and conservation mostly in South America, is the subject of an exhibit at the David Brower Center from Sept. 24 through Feb. 21.

Tompkins, who co-founded the outdoor fashion companies The North Face and Esprit, died in a kayak accident in Chile on Dec. 8, 2015, leaving a legacy that includes about a dozen present and future national parks in Argentina and Chile.

One of the newest, Parque Patagonia in southern Chile, is immediately south of Lake General Carrera, where the 72-year-old Tompkins and fellow environmentalist and outdoorsman Rick Ridgeway were tossed from their kayak into waters as cold as 40 degrees in swells stirred up by sudden wind gusts. Ridgeway survived the accident, but Tompkins died several hours later of hypothermia at a hospital in the town of Coyhaique. The ordeal is recounted in a Dec. 13, 2015 report in The Guardian.

“Douglas R. Tompkins: On Beauty” opens Sept. 24 with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. The reception is free, but the organizers suggest a $10 donation. Exhibition hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. The David Brower Center is at 2150 Allston Way.

“The exhibition examines beauty — as a polestar, an objective and motivation that guided Tompkins’ exceptional life and work,” the center’s program notes read in part. “This perspective positions beauty as a powerful catalyst that inspires action, both large and small, from environmental advocacy to simply awakening a more personal connectedness to all of life.”

The exhibit will include images by landscape photographer Antonio Vizcaíno, a longtime collaborator of Tompkins, and will coincide with the release of a book produced by the Brower Center in coordination with Tompkins’ former collaborators Tom Butler and Kevin Cross, according to the program notes.

In 1966, Tompkins and his first wife, Susie Buell, founded The North Face in San Francisco. The company, which moved to the East Bay two years later, eventually became one of the world’s leading outdoor equipment and clothing companies. In the late 1960s, the couple and a partner launched the Esprit fashion line, which became a leading purveyor of outdoor apparel.

Monte León National Park, Argentina. Photo by Antonio Vizcaíno. Courtesy of The David Brower Center.Around 1990, Tompkins quit the corporate life and moved to South America, where he founded or co-founded several organizations — including Conservación Patagónica with his second wife Kristine McDivitt — buying up land for conservation and eventual transformation into national parks.

Expanding on the exhibit’s theme of beauty, the program notes continue:

“As a young ski racer and mountaineer, Douglas R. Tompkins was introduced to the idea that these sporting disciplines incorporated style and philosophy. For example, a climber not only seeks to complete a pitch but will often choose the most elegant or beautiful ‘line,’ or route of ascent. In effect, Tompkins’ entire life followed this ethic — of seeking the most ambitious and beautiful line. In his business, design, architecture, and wildlands conservation pursuits, he sought to integrate aesthetics alongside effective action.”

The exhibit looks at “how the pursuit of beauty became a central, animating force in Tompkins’ intellectual development, and was woven throughout all of the work that flowed from his worldview. ”

In 2008, the American Alpine Club awarded Tompkins the David R. Brower Award for his work preserving mountain regions, according to the Brower Center website.

“Doug said ‘If anything can save the world, I’d put my money on beauty,’” the program notes read in part. “Our exhibit illuminates what Doug meant by his belief in the power of life-affirming beauty and serves, also, as a ‘thank you’ for everything he did, with his complete heart and soul, to preserve the conditions in which all life can flourish.”