Tony Angell brings the wild world alive. He is a storyteller extraordinaire, with a wealth of facts that flesh out wonderful tales of birds and other creatures that he has studied and had as roommates. He is a bit of a prankster as well. Which suits an artist and writer who welcomes pranksters like raccoons and crows and owls into his home.
Tony Angell’s latest book is “The House of Owls.” For more than two decades, he and his family have had the remarkable fortune to observe the lives of owls up close. In late 1969, a pair of Western Screech Owls set up housekeeping in a cedar just off his back porch inside a big house he built for them. He kept notes on the owl’s activities and drew them in flight, at rest, eating and just watching.
Over the years one owl or another has come into his life. Some even moved into their home. He and his wife and daughters helped the injured owls heal and how to readapt to the wilds. They even taught a few how to hunt. “The House of Owls” recounts in word and picture the lives of those owls. It is also a natural history of the owl species that live in North America. Throughout, Angell explores the influence owls have had on human thought and culture.
Through it all are the stories he tells about living with owls.
We talked on his back deck, surrounded by huge conifers, near a babbling stream and a noisy street, just a few feet from the cedar that once held the house he built for a pair of western screech owls.
Owls have been part of his life for decades. He was 8 when he saw his first owl in the oak and chaparral covered foothills around the San Fernando Valley in California. His mother once brought home an owlet she found in a schoolyard. He has become an expert mimic, able to recognize calls of owls and many other birds.
Tony Angel is highly successful and sought after artist. His realistic, viscerally charged stone and bronze sculptures can be seen in galleries, art museums and in public spaces, like his Snowy Owl sculpture at Frances Anderson Center in Edmonds or the Emissary Raven at the Interurban Trailhead in Shoreline. His prints of birds and mammals reveal as much about the strength and patience of his own powers of observation as they do about the creatures themselves.
Tony has the look of an athlete. The UW awarded him a track and field scholarship when he was 17. He majored in English, did graduate work in speech and communications. But all along he continued the work he had started as a kid. Encouraged by his mother, he watched birds, collected flowers and hiked all over the Santa Monica Mountains. Later he sketched Northwest birdlife and his portfolio caught the eye of Richard White of Seattle’s Foster White Gallery. His work is still shown there, next to the works of Morris Graves, Mark Tobey and other great Northwest artists. Alongside his work as an artist and an author, Angell spent many years as an environmental educator with the Washington Department of Public Instruction
For such a solid looking man, he seems like he could be about to take flight himself. He is working on many projects at once. His study is full of nature books. There are drawings and prints stacked around the big room. His worktable is holds the bones and feathers of many creatures, along with two owl carcasses.
Last time I visited Tony, with my friend Katy Sewall, he gave us a demonstration of taxidermy. He used a seagull that had been hit by a truck. It was a revelation to discover how important the handling of animals is to the detailed realistic creation of his art.
Along with owls and wings and feathers, the room is full of his art, otters and crows and ravens just emerging from stones that are lined up along the windowsill or resting on tables.
Tony has written or collaborated on a number of books about the creatures of the Northwest. His work with John Marzluff includes “Gifts of the Crows,” and “In the Company of Crows and Ravens.” He recounts his own career in “Puget Sound Through an Artist’s Eye.”
His stories, like his art, link us to the wild creatures of the world; creatures we barely see and do not really ever get to know. Angell takes the time to know these souls and brings their lives to us in word, in picture, in stone. Maybe knowing those stories will encourage us to welcome them into our lives.