Tony Angell (BA, 1962): Artist and Environmentalist

Tony AngellBy Amanda Weber –

He studied English and communication; wrote and/or illustrated 15 books; he has paintings and sculptures displayed across America; and he has received the Governor’s Literary Award in nonfiction and the prestigious Master Artist Award of the Leigh Yawkey Art Museum. Now, Tony Angell (BA, 1962), who never set foot in a college art class, is being honored as one of the newest inductees into the UW Department of Communication Alumni Hall of Fame.

“I was not taken with the instructional side of art,” Angell said. “I’m a trial-and-error learner and I like to find my own way through the processes rather than a formulaic approach.” This method of artistic exploration began when Angell was a child. His mother, also an artist, strongly supported his keen interests in nature and art. “She seemed to keep that belief in me alive, and it really didn’t matter where I went. I always felt that she understood me and understood that capacity,” Angell said.

Statue: 3 ravensTony Angell’s statue, “Wisdom Seekers,” was designed for the entry of the Redmond Public Library. It celebrates the importance of knowledge to the people of every culture. The ravens are “observing the world and collecting information,” Angell said.

Angell recalls a painting he did as a child, of men in a boat chasing a whale, which reflects upon the freedom his family allowed him in expressing himself. “When I look back on what my mom saved of my work as a third-grader — it defied some of the conventional rules, both in the color and composition, but it works,” he said. “I hope that I incorporate the message that it still holds for me: to be exploratory, to be brave, to not restrain yourself within someone else’s framework or expectation, and just do what you want to do.”

Angell has held true to that message. Bringing together what he learned about art and nature and what he gained from his former English and communication professors, Angell began contributing his observations and drawings in the 1960s to Pacific Search Magazine (now Pacific Northwest).

Later, he was encouraged by a friend, who had collected stone in the North Cascades, to do some experimenting with sculpture. “I had found that I immediately could see in the natural shapes of the stone, the possibilities; the same subjects that I had been drawing pictures of,” Angell said. Both Angell’s paintings and sculptures show his great passion for nature, as well as the high level of difficulty that goes into each creation.

He also found the resistance of carving to be attractive. “It’s something else to apply yourself to a stone that says, ‘Hey I’m not going anywhere easily. You’re going to have to work with me and be very determined.’ To this day, I enjoy the feeling of the chisel against the stone.”

It was in 1971 that Angell’s work found its way onto Seattle’s art map. On advice from friends, he took a portfolio of his drawings to the Richard White Gallery (now Foster/White) in downtown Seattle. Unbeknownst to him, White knew all about Angell’s work and asked to see the sculptures he had been working on, as well. “Professionally, it was a huge surprise to me to see the response I got,” Angell said. That summer, he was selected for the Allied Arts Show. Since 1971, Angell’s work has continuously been on display in the Foster/White gallery.

Success, Angell insists, is not measured by how many works of art he sells, but by how well he created an idea with his hands and the response of his audience. “Did I get closer to saying how I felt about the subject? Did other people respond to it in a way that I both hoped they would, but also surprised me? Those are measures of success,” he said.

Among his sculptures of which he’s most proud is “Wisdom Seekers,” a bronze and granite, 11-foot-tall work, designed for the entry of Redmond Public Library. With this sculpture, Angell intended to celebrate the importance of knowledge to the people of every culture as the ravens atop the granite block are “observing the world and collecting information.” The raven on the lower ledge is “contemplating the other three birds, suggesting that we learn from both firsthand experience, and from sharing the wisdom of others — something that every library seeks to provide,” Angell said.

In 1972, his first book, Birds of Prey on the Pacific Northwest Slope, was published. In this book, he provides full-page drawings of each species alongside descriptions of hunting and mating behavior, giving each the drama of a short story. “It was good to start to compile my narrations into some form which was more than just an article,” he said.

Angell likens the creation of his books to pouring a blend of cement: “It all comes together into a complete whole that is substantial, that you can really rely on.” The process begins with a compilation of his drawings, and from there he fills in the narrative.

Once a book is published, he takes the reaction of his audience into consideration for the planning of his next book, striving to address what they seek from his work. “You learn how to listen, as well as speak, in communication. What’s on the mind of the public when it comes to nature? What do they want to know or what should or could they know?”

Since 1972, subsequent books, Owls (1974), Ravens, Crows, Magpies and Jays (1978), and In the Company of Crows and Ravens (2005) have been well received, along with other publications to which he contributed his illustrations.
Although Angell has faced challenges throughout his life, with his time split among pursuing his goals as an artist and author, his work with the Washington state chapter of the Nature Conservancy, and his responsibilities as a family man, Angell says that his energy to keep on with these sometimes separate entities remains, as does the inspiration.

“I must apply the discipline and sometimes sacrifice other things I would enjoy doing, often with others, in order to fulfill an artistic idea,” but, “I would most certainly want to express my appreciation of my immediate family who have given so much of their time, energy and interest to what I’ve sought to accomplish. Without that support it’s difficult to imagine the existing realization of my creative work and the continued atmosphere that encourages it.”

Coming in December, the Foster/White Gallery will be featuring Angell’s most recent work in a show entitled, “Conversations with Nature in Stone and Bronze.” He also has a forthcoming book, co-written with author John Marzluff, The Gift of Crows, to be available April 2012.