Tony Angell | Wrestling with Stone

By Richard Seven

Tony Angell is a boulder of a man, 6-foot-2, barrel-chested, and rock solid. Even at 62 and hobbling to nurse a pinched nerve in his back, he possesses a certain sculpted strength that is expressed in everything from his erupting laugh to his thick forearms and worn fingers that used to propel the shot put in college.

He fits right in with the chunks of granite, marble, and serpentine that surround him in his cluttered, open-air Seattle-area studio. Some sit untouched. Some have had large, uneven grooves cleaved from their tops—what a human might consider a disastrous haircut. Others show faint signs of life, like the beginnings of a shoulder or a head, a frozen pose between rock and the natural world.

Angell is moving about the studio. As he comes to a round block of hard sandstone, he shuffles backward so he can take it in from various angles. He tilts his head and lets his eyes drift over it. It’s the same approach he uses when he views wildlife along a creek or from a high perch at his island retreat. He takes the wide view to find context. Then he focuses on the essence, which goes unnoticed by most. Friends and fellow artists like novelist Ivan Doig say that hiking with Angell is a revelation, but not just because of the wildlife he notices and the knowledge he carries. What is most remarkable is how Angell reveres and connects with the natural world.

Inside the round block of sandstone lives an otter, corkscrewing itself to see what’s happening behind it. The otter must wait inside the block a little longer, though. Angell is focusing on ravens just now. Perhaps his most unusual current project involves a rectangular portion of slate from a recycled pool table. On it he has incised four finely crafted ravens gathered to snack on a salmon, a scene he saw while hiking Icicle Canyon in the Cascade Mountains not long ago. “Ravens are a metaphor for the mysteries of nature,” he says. “I’m taken by their behavior, intelligence, their theatrical style. When you look a raven in the eyes, you know something is going on inside. And I’m very familiar with the significance they hold in Native American culture.”

Angell’s twofold talents as naturalist and sculptor have made him one of the country’s most respected and honored animal artists. His sculptures in stone and bronze have been shown in top galleries from Seattle to Santa Fe to New York. His public-art commissions pepper the Northwest, and he was one of only two sculptors among 25 international artists invited a few years ago to chronicle Alaska’s Copper River Delta. He has illustrated and authored several award-winning books on wildlife. Critics and associates say that between his commitment to the natural world and the toughness needed to work with stone, Angell is his art.

At his gallery openings and public art presentations Angell is the most unpretentious dresser in the room. He’s a rolled-up-work-shirt-and-boots kind of guy. His studio is a doublewide carport. His office is as wonderfully cluttered as a little kid’s room, only his clutter has a theme: drawings and books, binoculars, a long-lens camera. There are sculptures and Native American art everywhere.

One painting, of a little boy sitting along a stream and staring in awe at a family of owls that surround him, has special significance. The work is by famed illustrator Frances Lee Jaques, who mentored and encouraged Angell. Jaques’ wife, Florence, authored several nature books and wrote a popular nursery rhyme that includes the verse: “But this poor little puffin, he couldn’t play nothing/For he hadn’t anybody, to play with at all/So he sat on his island, and he cried for awhile and/he felt very lonely, and he felt very small.”

Angell put the poem to music, strummed his guitar, and sang it for the couple. He was working on a puffin sculpture when he learned his mentor had died. The men were from different generations and on opposite coasts, but the death hit Angell hard. Some months after he had finished the sculpture, Angell noticed for the first time an imperfection in the green stone—a single gold streak descending from the right eye down the cheek, as if the stone puffin was crying. Today it stands in a prominent place in his home.

Until retiring last year, Angell led environmental education curriculum planning for Washington public schools. Over the years, he has trained hawks and falcons, nursed injured birds, and been a staunch advocate of protecting wildlife. That commitment has much in common with Angell’s medium. Rock is heavy and tough. It bruises, scrapes, and gnarls fingers. It doesn’t give up easily. It takes force, touch, a careful eye, sanding, polishing, lugging, and loving polish to transform. This toughness just makes his artistic journey that much sweeter.

“The rock itself is the challenge,” he says. “The stone continues to push back at you, and you’re pushing against it to see where it will go. That’s emotionally pleasant but physically rewarding, too, like lifting a load.”

Angell’s studio is a menagerie of forms. Stone will stay untouched for many months until he gets a rush of inspiration. Then he will take hammer to chisel and send chunks flying. Each stroke sends up smells of earth, smells sometimes melded from thousands of years of evolution. When he gets the hint of a head, shoulder, or pose, he will move on to something new. That initial transformation from stone to life is what excites him the most. The fine-tuning and polishing to museum quality are least interesting, but they are part of the love affair.

He finds much of his inspiration around Lopez Island, part of Washington’s San Juan archipelago. He, his wife, and two children keep a rustic cabin there near the top of a rocky bluff. Removed from modern life, he sketches, tracks eagles, listens to nature’s languid chatter, and gets as far away from electronic noise as he can. Angell developed his love of nature as a child, wandering the foothills, climbing toward raptor nests, and nosing around along the Los Angeles River. His parents let him keep snakes, birds, and other critters in his room, and by taking a correspondence class at age 11, he learned how to skin and stuff dead animals so he could study their structure.

Angell’s mother was a painter and teacher. His father was a well-known L.A. private eye who could pick out a single conversation in a crowded restaurant, tailed celebrities such as Tyrone Power, had clients like Howard Hughes, and was an adviser for Ellery Queen mysteries. He taught his son to be observant.

Angell got a track scholarship to the University of Washington and studied to be an English teacher. He never took an art class but became accomplished quickly. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that he found the medium that fits him so well. A neighbor and curator of birds at Seattle’s Burke Museum gave him a slab of soft soapstone. Within a day, Angell had carved a crude bear. Soon, the two were making trips to the riverbeds near Marblemount and hauling back truckloads of boulders. His approach changed dramatically one rainy night in the 1970s. He had found the perfect block of chlorite from which to create a commissioned sculpture of two ravens. Yet he was stumped on exactly how to bring the birds to life. So the stone sat there while Angell stewed. Then one night he got home late from a day of examining Native American carvings in British Columbia; as he pulled into his driveway, the headlights shone directly on the stone.

“Right there in the head-lights I saw the form within the rock,” he says. “I think I must have worked 24 hours a day and finished it in something like three days. That marked my transformation from repli-cation to expression, and I haven’t looked back.”

As the director of environmental education for Washington State, Angell developed an integrated curriculum on everything from watersheds to energy consumption to population growth. A former member of the board of directors of Washington’s chapter of the Nature Conservancy, Angell was at home in debate, whether arguing strategy over wildlife policies or defending state education from pro-business interests concerned that kids were getting biased information. In both arenas, his status as a renowned nature artist validated his opinions. And while Angell’s personality is warm and instantly likeable, he can also roar. He recently wrote an angry letter to a newspaper for prominently featuring a story about a Botox party while relegating a story about kids rehabilitating a stream to a back page.

As the novelist Ivan Doig says, spending time with Angell makes you notice. You start to notice that there are chickens running around the sculptor’s yard, and that his baseball cap is coated with months’ worth of rock dust, and that the half-stone, half-animal creatures that surround you at his studio seem to be looking your way. You start to hear, for the first time in a long time, birds whistling and talking above the din of the passing cars.

Angell is represented by Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, and Foster/White Gallery, Seattle, WA.

Featured in June 2003