A Fiendish Conversation with Tony Angell
The sculptor discusses his avian obsession and his upcoming Foster/White exhibit.
Seattleite Tony Angell has parlayed his avian fascination into a career of sculpting beautiful birds (and other creatures from nature) in bronze and stone. In a month that’s notoriously bereft of visual arts openings, a collection of his works soaring into the Foster/White Gallery is a welcome sight. The exhibit opens as tomorrow (December 5) as part of this month's First Thursday, and remains on display through January 25. Thankfully Angell’s creations didn’t fly south for the winter.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation we chatted with Angell about using birds as a muse, and Seattle's sculptural light, and not getting hung up on photorealism.
What excites you about the pieces you’re presenting at Foster/White?
There are a couple of things. The material: There’s both a carvable material in stone and then the modeling is eventually a cast bronze. So the combination of these materials—rather than having it all of one or all of another—has brought a dimension to the show that I find interesting.
There’s the standpoint of what the stone has that’s unique to it. Part of it is just its mass, color, and the kinds of shape the stone itself takes. And that’s part of what you try to go with; as a carver you try to go with what the stone is already trying to do, both from shape and color. I don’t really work very well from a block of stone; I prefer to have it already shaped and then go with that. And that’s in contrast with the modeling, which allows you to put your personal idea into the model into the bronze. That can be liberating in a way, because bronze has a capacity to extend the form more than stone does. So in the show there are extended elements of my subject matter, which is nature. The stone by comparison is more inclined to be a self-contained form. There’s no extended elements so much as it’s wrapped up into itself. So I imagine whatever I’d observe or conceived of to go with that aspect of the stone.
There’s a stone piece in the show called Serpent Catcher, and it’s sienna marble, brown marble. And I’ve matched the shape of that marble piece I had with an idea I had of an animal catching a serpent. The color of the stone also influenced the subject because it’s a fur-covered animal in that caramel color brown that the sienna marble is, so the color of the stone influenced me as well. But what you would see in that piece would be the extensions of the form coming right back, more or less, into the stone, because that supports the stone rather than having it go out in space and be, in a way, more vulnerable. The Greeks and the Romans got around that by pining their appendages to their sculptures. And by pinning them you can put two or three pieces of stone together. I don’t do that. I have nothing against it, but I don’t do it. So there’s the tale of the predator wrapped out, away from the stone, because I drilled back down through and cut back through the stone to release its tail, but it’s also then eventually wrapped back into the stone itself. And then the serpent in the process of capturing has a coil dimension to it—open and closed, open and closed, open and closed. So what you end of doing with stone is that you really investigate the whole adventure of negative space. There’s positive form, but what can you do with the space to make it engaging and interesting and bring out the full form?
Also I think there’s a collection of work… I’ve been doing this quite a while. I had my first show in the Dick White gallery in 1971–72, when Richard White owned the gallery and the space. So I’ve been with that gallery throughout that period, and I look back on my work—and it’s not the easiest thing for the artist to comment on where he or she is evolved to—but I think there’s an element of evolution in what I emphasize. As I’ve carved and sculpted or modeled over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m more interested in conveying the spirit side, the personality, the intangible, emotional side of my subjects than just trying to translate my appreciation of the externalities of them; the lines and the shapes. I’m still interested in that, because I think aesthetically it’s important in my work, but in this show I think I do feel that there is that attitude of the subject matter that conveys how I’ve grown as an artist… or in the direction I’ve taken anyway.
Was there any sort of initial spark that led so much of your work to focus on birds?
Yeah, first hand contact with them ever since I was a kid. I had the benefit of having some proximity to natural, wild areas, where I didn’t have to take too many steps out of the house before I was seeing exciting things. And, you know, there’s the cliché that they can fly and we cannot. There is that attraction. In comparison to people, they’re rather supernatural as far as how they get around. But more to it than that, I think I was given the freedom to keep falcons, hawks, and owls as a kid that would show up one place or another, and end up at home with me for a while. And that has a really strong impression. I just wanted to get close to the avian form by doing something in response to it. The drawing, and the painting, and eventually the sculpture was a way to celebrate it, understand it, and perpetuate it in my life.
How has Seattle influenced your work?
I think just in the presence of nature that we still enjoy here has continued to influence me. Deloris Tarzan Ament did a book with Mary Randlett—Iridescent Light—and talked about how artists, myself included, were influenced by the light here. And I think to a degree that’s true. There’s a sculptural side of the light you begin to see through shadow and the dramatic changes in seasonal light. You start to see form very, very well and in different ways.
Do you have a favorite art show you’ve seen in the past few years?
The one that I totally remember the best was at the Seattle Art Museum: They had some of the original paintings of Audubon’s Birds of America that he’d done 150-180 years ago. And I was carried away by his remarkable, almost intuitive sense of design that he had; wanting to do all the subjects life-size and he composing them on sheets of paper. And he did it without the benefit of cameras. He did it without the kinds of technical supports that artists have today to try and do the same thing. The kind of photorealism that has become emphasized and so much literal interpretation in contemporary art and representational art, to me, is very faded and weak compared to the invigoration and emotion that somebody like Audubon could put into it, because his imagination could play. He wasn’t a slave to a lens. He wasn’t a slave to a photograph he was copying. He just let ‘er rip! I think that’s kind of an inspiration and reminder to me. To be an artist of those subjects, you’ve got to invest your soul, your emotion, and your imagination.
Dec 5–Jan 25, Foster/White Gallery, Free