Book Review: Puget Sound Through an Artist’s Eye, by Tony Angell
reviewed by Stephen J. Bodio
January 15, 2010
Sculptor Tony Angell’s Puget Sound Through an Artist’s Eye is like a four-decade diary carved in stone by an artist-naturalist. His characters are the myriad denizens of this rich ecosystem— petrels, plovers, cormorants, gulls, falcons, the occasional otter, and perhaps above all the omnipresent raven, “under whose wisely wrought wings everything prospers,” as Ivan Doig writes.
If this were a “mere” coffee-table book showcasing Angell’s birds, it would still be magnificent. But it is, first, a celebration of the Sound: “the natural diversity of Puget Sound as the artist’s palette”; and second, an inquiry into the artist’s craft: “bringing experience and inspiration into artistic expressions.” There may be more visual artists who can write than writers who can paint or draw, but Angell is exceptional, both as an observer of nature and with his own creative work.
He starts his journey in the high country and its valleys, with Steller’s Jays and owls and forest hawks in winged stone. An eagle is rendered in black chlorite, as are many raptors, to bring out form without the distraction of color, but Snow Geese and ermine are done in appropriate white alabaster and creamy marble. As he reaches the estuary, falcons appear, one peregrine joined by a wave to a dense flock of plovers, an incredible tour de force in bronze. Cliffs and islands bring fish, loons, Bald Eagles, guillemots, and as he reaches open water, orcas, murrelets (who link back to the forests where they nest), and scoters. He explains their habits, their links, their changing fortunes. Incredibly, most of these creatures, despite their different shapes and textures, are wrought from stone, though he adds sharp-edged ink drawings to show striking plumage or the structure of a feeding frenzy.
It is the second half of the book that fascinates me most, as he describes disparate influences ranging from Renaissance and Greek art to the poetry of Theodore Roethke (“I was mightily impressed by his combination of physicality and sensitivity. Creativity and athleticism are not mutually exclusive.”). And stone sculpture must be the most physical of the visual arts. He cites Tunnicliffe, Rockwell Kent, and F. L. Jacques as influences on his drawing, and—along with his friend, artist Thomas Quinn—the Samurai painter Musashi.
For sculpture, he was blessed by good public access to steatite, chlorite, and marble. Blank stone and Native American artists pointed him toward his beloved ravens, almost his totemic bird. (“My many years in the company of ravens, however, have probably had the greatest influence on my work.”) However fine his ink-line birds, sculpture speaks more to him. “‘Try to move or shape me,’ it seems to say. Some of my fascination comes from knowing something initially unyielding can be coaxed into revealing the forms, patterns, and colors within it.” He then proceeds to show us, step by step, a white Gyrfalcon being “released” from the marble.
Watching, drawing, picking the medium all contribute to Angell’s art, but are we losing the opportunity to have more artists like him? “My time spent with my subjects has also involved direct handling of them,” he says. “Given today’s regulations on keeping wild animals it was fortunate for me that as a child there were few such restrictions.” It would be a shame if Angell’s generation were, to paraphrase a book title, the last children in the woods. We cannot love what we do not know.