Angell, Tony (b. 1940)

  • By Deloris Tarzan Ament
  • Posted 3/01/2003
  • Essay 5329

Tony Angell is an eminent Pacific Northwest painter and sculptor whose work has often centered on birds, especially ravens and crows. He is also an author. Since 1971, he has been Washington State Director of Environmental Education and serves on the board of Washington State chapter of the Nature Conservancy. This biography of Tony Angell is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002). Note: All unattributed quotations are from Deloris Tarzan Ament's interview with Tony Angell on December 6, 1999.

Tony Angell: Speaks Raven

If we followed the Native American tradition of naming people for their talents or exploits, Tony Angell would be known as Speaks Raven. "Raven has been a big influence in my artistic career," he acknowledges. "Believe me, you hang around ravens long enough, you begin to see the world as they do, and feel strongly that they have something to share" (Angell, Ravens, 17).

From Illustrator to Creator

The point at which he metamorphosed from a technically competent illustrator into an inspired creator can be pinpointed with some precision. It happened in 1975. A passionate naturalist, he had studied birds all his life, and had been drawing them since he was in the first grade.

He had received a commission from U.S. West to create a raven sculpture. He had the stone in hand: a waist-high block of black chlorite. It sat in his yard unhewn for a long time while he puzzled over how to shape it. He was, at that time, writing and illustrating a book on ravens, allowing that work to occupy most of his creative focus. In search of insights for his book, he decided to drive to British Columbia to look at native depictions of Raven and to speak with museum anthropologists.

Driving home, he was preoccupied by what he had seen and heard. When he turned into his driveway, the lights of his car hit the chlorite rock standing in mud. "There in the headlights I saw the connected forms of two ravens in the stone" he said. "All the while I was confounded, my subconscious had been solving the problem. Once I saw the form, it was astonishing how fast I finished it. I was under the influence of something outside myself."

Working with the fever of inspiration, he released the shapes of a pair of Courting Ravens within a few days. "That marked my transformation from replication to expression and I haven't looked back," he said.

It is important to understand that the critical moment did not occur in a vacuum. All of his life to that point had prepared him for it.

A Boyhood With the Birds

J. Anthony Angell was born November 15, 1940, in Los Angeles. The "J" -- an initial only -- was in honor of his maternal grandfather, a stonemason and silo builder in southern Michigan who also was named with an initial. As an adult, Angell has come to resemble him. Angell's mother, née Florence Brown, was a schoolteacher and a self-taught artist. Angell's father, Frank, was an attorney who had gone into the FBI in the late 1930s. During World War II, he was stationed in Peru. After the war, he left the FBI to become a private investigator, making use of his former FBI contacts. Frank Angell died in 1988.

Tony may have learned the art of observation from his father, who did sleuthing for clients including Howard Hughes, and was on occasion a consultant to Erle Stanley Gardner for Ellery Queen mysteries.

The family lived in North Hollywood, a half mile from the Los Angeles River, whose banks had not yet been cemented for flood control. The adjacent marshes were filled with wildlife. The nearby hills were home to mountain lion, coastal deer, and California condor. It was all within a bicycle ride or an easy walk for Angell, who made the hills his outdoor home:

“Dad wasn't around. I had complete freedom to take off, and spend time absorbed in an imaginary world. I did things too dangerous for kids to do today. Those were different times. When Saturday came I would be out of the house long before daylight to bike northward to some remote canyon and not return until after sundown. Today this seems like unbelievable freedom for a ten-year old. It was secured with a promise to attend church with my mother the next day.”

After the war, when California real estate development began to boom, the Los Angeles River was channeled by a cement aqueduct and enclosed with barbed wire. Cut off from the waterway, threatened by encroaching suburbs, the wildlife vanished. Watching that change made a profound impression on Angell. It made him, in later life, a defender of ecosystems:

“I watched the mindless momentum of bulldozers fill stream beds and crush oak forests, fulfilling the dreams of a freeway and parking lot planner. With obscene indifference, the homes of my wild associates were destroyed, and then they too were gone.

"Fortunately, my grandparents and their parents before them lived at the edge of the tiny town of Bloomingdale, Michigan, more in the flow of woodland life than the action of the human community. I started each summer day with a hike into the oak and beech forests. Stretching out to look into the canopy of trees, I soon found the blue jays that chased, scolded, courted, mobbed, and serenaded me with whisper songs. Their animated lives opened up all the possibilities of avian behavior and beauty, and surely set the course of my life's interest” (Angell, Ravens, 33).

Almost from the beginning, birds were an intimate part of his life. He recalled:

“As a boy, I had a yellow-billed magpie that followed me about the yard as I engaged half-heartedly in childhood duties of tidying up fallen leaves and flower beds. I think now that had it not been for my bright-colored friend, I might never have been able to build up momentum to get the tasks done. He would poise at the edge of the rake, ready to seize any grubs or crickets that my movements exposed. When his hunger had been satisfied, he remained, for he was as curious as I as to what might be revealed by the next sweep of the rake” (Angell, Ravens, 84).

When he was 10, he read King Solomon's Ring, naturalist Konrad Lorenz's book about living with birds he was studying. "With its reading my life's interest in birds was given new direction and maturity" (Angell, Ravens, 84). At 11, to learn about birds' structures more intimately, he took a correspondence course in taxidermy and learned to prepare study skins of birds and mammals.

Encouraged by his mother, he showed an early facility for drawing. "Art got me in under the wire a lot of times," said Angell, who spent a good deal of time at Rio Vista Elementary School gazing out the window, working out a strategy to cut class and get outdoors.

When he graduated from North Hollywood High School in 1958, he was the all-city Los Angeles shot-put champ, having grown to a strapping 6 feet, 2 inches, with a weight that settled in at 230 pounds. Recruited for football and track, he said yes to a track-and-field scholarship to the University of Washington:

North to Forests and Sea

“The Valley had turned from orange groves into real estate developments. I wanted to be in the Northwest because I thought it was romantic, with its proximity to the great forests and the sea. I'd started to read about the Northwest when I was in the eighth grade, and the images of a remaining wilderness intrigued me.”

Encouraged by his father, he planned to enter a pre-law curriculum. "In my heart I was a naturalist. But I wasn't consciously headed in that direction." He entered the University of Washington with a major in speech communications, uncertain whether he would teach or write. He was drawn to read the transcendental naturalists Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Herman Melville.

At graduation, he passed the exam for entrance into law school, but continued instead with graduate work in speech communications, with emphasis on public address and rhetoric. He gravitated toward the written and oral traditions of communication during the Renaissance. Graduate work introduced him to the concept of the "Renaissance man" -- one adept in multiple areas, as Leonardo da Vinci was; the artist as poet, painter, and politician.

No art courses were part of Angell's curriculum. Although he continued to draw and paint, and had friends in the School of Art, the direction of their studies was not of interest to him. While they were keen on the cutting edge of abstract expressionism, he had become intrigued with Renaissance art, and its focus on the human form. He had begun to paint bodies in motion. "I was interested in how the athletic side of me worked; the articulation of muscles in arms and legs."

Roethke and Graves

He had begun to train falcons and hawks, a pastime that gave him an unexpected link to poet Theodore Roethke:

“Roethke was a strong influence on me in terms of validating my worthiness. I met him when I was dating one of his poetry students. We talked about birds, and his great pleasure in them. He made it seem important that I was interested in art, because I was basically a jock. For all his boisterousness and drunkenness, Roethke was a great artist. We were scheduled to play badminton together the Saturday after he had a heart attack and drowned in the Bloedel pool on Bainbridge Island.”

In 1966, fresh from graduate school, Angell married Noël Gabie, and took a job teaching English at Shorecrest High School. The schedule left him with plenty of available time to concentrate on art. "My living accommodations -- a rented half-cabin, half-house -- allowed me to bring in wild animals for direct study. My landlord was a godsend who seemed endlessly accommodating of my wild menagerie, assisting in building pens, perches, and even doors that allowed ravens direct entry into my studio from the outside."

He was inspired by the soulful nature of birds in Morris Graves's paintings: "They weren't realistic depictions of birds, but their expressiveness was very true to the circumstance he was conveying. I wanted some of that to come out in my art." He was also impressed by Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida carving. "It's hard to say just how they influenced what I was doing," he says in retrospect, "but my interest was such that I experimented with their form in two dimensions -- particularly those of Raven, Frog, Bear, and Oystercatcher. I was inspired by their level of expression and by the emotion coming out of them. Form lines became far more important than detail."

He spent hours in the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) studying scrolls and folding screens of the Edo period in Japan, especially the screen 100 Crows. "It has a motion and feeling I could immediately identify with. This artist knew crows. His depictions are so powerful you feel yourself absorbed into the clamor and excitement. I had the same feeling about a group of woodpeckers in a Graves' painting in the museum's collection." (Woodpeckers, was painted in 1940. SAM acquired it in 1941.)

In 1967, he took a portfolio of his artwork to New York, for the opinions and advice of noted animal illustrators Don Eckelberry and Lee Jaques. He later wrote, "It isn't by chance that many artists of the last 20 years who chose to portray birds carried their portfolios east to New York to seek the criticism of Don Eckelberry. Eckelberry's portraits hold that charged vitality of the living bird as few artists have ever conveyed it" (Angell, Ravens, 29).

"They were very gentle with me," he reported of his trip. "They said things like, ‘You know your subject.' Jaques showed me how to do more with gouache, and designing a picture. He was so nice that I ended up staying with him and his wife." Eckelberry and his wife provided similar support. After he returned to Seattle, Angell sent back pictures of new work as it was completed, for their comments.

The Turn to Sculpture

And then his life took a decisive turn. "About the time I was starting to get the hang of painting, in 1969, I discovered sculpture."

A neighbor, Dr. Frank Richardson, was curator of birds at the Burke Museum, on the University of Washington campus. Angell, who had gone back to the College of Education to obtain a general certificate for teaching, was using the Burke's study skins collection to make in-depth studies of features such as a duck's bill or an owl's foot.

One day, Richardson gave him a slab of soft soapstone. Within a day, Angell had carved a crude bear. Richardson invited him to come along on an outing to the Upper Skagit, to the riverbed near Marblemount, where he had discovered a good source of soapstone. Soon the two of them were hauling back truckloads of it. Sculpture did not replace his drawing and painting. It merely gave them another dimension.

Angell called Harriet Bullitt, editor of Pacific Search magazine, asking if he might contribute illustrations and essays on Northwest wildlife. The magazine became a valuable venue for publishing his work and getting feedback. Pacific Search Press published his first book, Birds of Prey on the Pacific Northwest Slope.

Published in soft cover, in 11-by-14-inch format, the book details 14 species of day-flying birds of prey that, he wrote, "now emerge as prime indicators of environmental quality" (Angell, Birds of Prey, 5). He pointed out how they contribute to a healthy ecosystem, and how their presence or absence forces us to face the long-term effects of pesticides and poisonous wastes.

He supplemented full-page drawings of each species with descriptions of hunting and mating behavior, giving each the drama of a short story. Often he waxed poetic: "Shrouds of ground mist lace the cattails. A young marsh hawk rises from her ground roost, stretches her wings, then preens and fluffs her contour feathers." Or: "Puffed up and ripe with warmth, a kestrel faces his hunting field in the silence of the morning chill." He describes a black merlin (the female pigeon hawk) lovingly: "Her underparts are cream and cinnamon streaked with the black-brown which becomes the predominant color of her flanks. . . . Her face shows the characteristic falcon moustache."

Betty Bowen, an active supporter of Northwest artists as well as public relations director for the Seattle Art Museum, visited Angell's studio. She suggested that he show his work to Richard White, who operated a Pioneer Square art gallery.

Angell recalls his visit to the gallery vividly:

“I went in and he [White] was sitting at his desk at the rear of the gallery with a bottle of gin on the table. He said, "Can I help you?" and I said, "Yeah." He said, "With what?" and I said, "I want a show." "Who are you?" he asked me, and I said, "I'm Tony Angell." "I know your work," he said. "Let's see what you've got." When I showed him my work, he about came out of his chair. He wanted me in the gallery. He said, "What else do you do?" He wanted to see what I was working on."

The following weekend, White and his business partner, architect Ralph Anderson (1924-2010), visited Angell's studio and back bedroom, where he had begun to carve. They scheduled a summer show of his work at Kiana Lodge, and put him on the gallery schedule for the following year.

In 1974, shortly after that show, Angell published his second book, Owls (1974), dedicated to his twin daughters, Bryony Megan and Gilia Noël, and to his wife, Noël Gordon. In the book's preface, he points out: "An owl is much more than a combination of facts and figures. The bird possesses a lovely physical form and a personality marked by strength and vitality." He describes and illustrates the 18 species of owls resident to North America, depicting everything from their skulls and talons to the flare of their feathers on the hunt. He notes the benefit of the species to man in checking rodent numbers. The nest of one great horned owl he examined held the remains of 118 rodents taken in a week's time.

At the time, by permit from the federal Fish and Wildlife Department, Angell was keeping an injured screech owl named Dancing Bear in his home. Dancing Bear had lost a wing. From him, and from other screech owls who showed up at the family door to engage in dialogue with Dancing Bear, he learned territorial and courtship songs, as well as forms of owl greeting, food-begging, and threatening. A nesting box on his property, occupied by a succession of owls over the past 30 years, has provided an ongoing source of ideas and impressions.

The dramatic turn in Angell's art that was marked by the moment in 1975 when the headlights of his car revealed the ravens in the rock he was about to carve resonated in his drawings as well. By the time he published Ravens, Crows, Magpies and Jays in 1978, his drawings had come to life. In describing their language and acts of altruism such as rushing to the aid of a threatened comrade or baby-sitting their young, the birds emerge as personalities rather than simply as specimens. They do so in his illustrations as well. No more is the foot or wing of a dead specimen rendered. In this book, Angell's subjects emerge as members of a social community observed at their daily business. The end sheets and cover reproduce his splendid drawing, 100 Mexican Crows, inspired by the Edo-period folding screen 100 Crows in the SAM collection. (The Japanese screen actually contains fewer than 50 crows, whereas Angell's version, which measures 24 by 14 inches, contains 102 of them.)

"It appears that no other birds approach their breadth of intelligence," he wrote (Angell, Ravens, 82). He also pointed out that a single family of crows consumes more than 40,000 grubs, caterpillars, army worms, and other insects in a single nesting season. He summarizes:

“To some degree, perhaps greater than most of us would admit, we find this intelligent family of birds most attractive because they are not too unlike ourselves. Their foibles are our own. They squabble within their families and wage battles with those clans that would impinge upon their home ground. Their lives involve a struggle for identity in their social hierarchy and survival in the biologic community of their choosing. Like us, they seem to have fleeting moments of joy when the mate is won, the game is played, the belly is full, and the sun shines on our backs. There is also that intriguing element about corvids that is of the unknown. These birds are more than descriptions by weight, measure, color, and distribution, for behind their amber eyes are answers to questions we may never learn to ask” (Angell, Ravens, 105).

One corvid holds a special place in his affections. "The raven, heaviest and strongest of all passerine species, has ... achieved the status of a god." Describing Raven's status among indigenous peoples, he writes, "The Kwakiutl offered the afterbirth of a male newborn to ravens to peck at so that when the child was grown to manhood he would understand their cries" (Angell, Ravens, 51). He enumerates a dozen raven vocalizations that warn of a change in weather, warn of impending attack, or describe prospects for hunting. One of them, wax, wax, wax, specifically foretells a visit by a stranger.

He relates a personal experience with a resident raven to illustrate the bird's quick ability to learn:

“I whistled to call him home, and he quickly appeared, flying spiritedly up the center of the road, croaking and hooting as he came. He landed and bounded over with a clothespin clasped firmly in his beak. I took it from him and rewarded him with a handful of overripe banana and chicken -- his recipe for ambrosia. My generosity was to be regretted. The next morning he was off with a great flourish of wing-beating to sail the length of our road and again dive into the same distant trees. Again, I heard the same impatient and raucous calling as he apparently struggled to retrieve some item. In another moment he was headed home, floating and calling in a way that can only be described as jubilant. This time, however, he was flying a white flag that streamed back from his beak. He landed and strutted over in puffed-up bravado. His prize this time turned out to be a pair of women's underwear ... It hadn't occurred to me at the time that to give him a handful of his favorite food would have such immediate reinforcement on his retrieval behavior. I finally succeeded in extinguishing his interest in clothespins and underwear by keeping him inside on wash days” (Angell, Ravens, 83).

There were other aspects to living with birds:

“The ravens of our household would often strut from room to room seeking a proper repository for the food held in their throat. If we failed to follow them, they would regurgitate and then cache their prize in places unknown to us. A warm week later we'd be frantically searching curtain tops and undersides of cushions and couches for the source of the obnoxious smell" (Angell, Ravens, 69).

Hard Times

He ends his preface to Ravens, Crows, Magpies and Jays as he had the preface to Owls, with special thanks to his wife Noël for her "patience, sacrifice and support." But the seeds of their separation had already been sown. A week before Christmas 1987, Noël announced that she was leaving.

Their long, hard divorce was not final until 1989. The bitter process had a visible influence on his art. Angell's illustrations for Bert Bender's Sea Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present, published in 1988, were markedly different from his earlier work. While consistent with the book's content, they seem unusually dark and desperate. "I show a guy drowning. Someone wrestling with an octopus. Another guy dying in a boat, riddled with bullet holes." Angell's friend Jim McDermott (b. 1936), a psychiatrist before he held political office, toured an exhibition of the illustrations and concluded by telling Angell, "You're sick." They both laughed. Looking back, Angell muses:

“Along with keeping my children, I know that art literally saved my life. You can imagine what a powerful physical and emotional release stone carving can be. Rather than taking some rash and self-destructive action, the Gods had given me a gift to employ -- a process of destruction that would lead to creation. I would go to the stone late at night, stare, cry, and begin to pound away at its flanks, not knowing where I was headed. And then out of this at first chaotic battle would emerge a direction I would follow. The stone would take me to the form that awaited, and quite suddenly my world again became purposeful and good. After these moments, I remember looking into the night, following the ascent of my steamy breath, feeling unafraid and ready for what might come tomorrow. "Art made me a survivor when my world was falling apart. The process of describing a form or spirit gives me a purchase on the purpose of the universe. It has given me a direction and a balance. The emotional reward I get from coming close to discovering what I know keeps me exuberant and happy with being alive. I've heard it said that art is an enterprise of neurotics in pursuit of mental health. There's truth in that.”

For Angell, truth also lies in nature. Since 1971, he has been Washington State Director of Environmental Education, coordinating efforts to teach schoolchildren about the natural world, our place in it, and its importance to our physical, economic, and spiritual well-being.

Over the past 20 years, Angell has served as a board member of the Washington State chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He met his second wife, Lee Rolfe, when she was working for the Conservancy. They married on June 1, 1991. Their first child, Gavia, was born on June 13, 1992. Larka was born on December 15, 1995.

A Feeling, a Sudden Insight

His art continues to evolve. Angell notes:

“You have to search out form. It's subtle. Almost secretive in nature. It invites me. It plays. Sings its song with complex harmonies. You need to listen hard; apply all your senses. The subtle complexity of life in the Northwest requires, for me, the process of art to understand and find my place within it. What ignites me and presses me into action is a feeling, or a sudden insight that I need to say something about the world around me. I may witness a motion, an interaction, or some juxtaposition in nature. Like Bird at Sea, a tiny marbled murrelet which floats on turbulent water, its tenacity a metaphor for survival.

"There have been many times with animals when I've sensed that my subjects were busy studying me; a strange moment of common ground in mutual understanding. I'm quite convinced that part of the Raven, Otter, and Hawk spirit has occasionally been invested in me with the purpose of conveying their story to others of my kind.

"Art is a very practical matter. But if you don't allow your art to be influenced and swept away by your emotions, it never really becomes art.”


Deloris Tarzan Ament interview with Tony Angell, December 6, 1999; Tony Angell, Ravens, Crows, Magpies and Jays (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978); Tony Angell, Birds of Prey on the Pacific Northwest Slope (Seattle: Pacific Search Press, 1972); Tony Angell, Owls (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974); Bert Bender, Sea Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present, with drawings by Tony Angell (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988).

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