Her great-grandfather was none other than Bert Phillips, one of the co-founders of the Taos Society of Artists. Bert married Rose Martin (“Doc” Martin’s intrepid sister), and the rest is history. Margo was born and raised in this valley, sending her family roots three generations down into Taos’ hallowed ground.
So when Margo announced she was initiating a “New Masters of Taos,” series of exhibits at the Blumenschein (Taos Historic Museums), of which she has been President for the past three years, I didn’t blink. For one thing, I know that Margo who is an Art Biz whiz, having grown up around art, art galleries and art dealers (her father, Bill Beutler included), she’s also a talented artist herself with Phillips’ DNA firmly embedded in her genes. If anyone can spot a “new” Taos Master in the image of the old ones, it’s she.
And Robert Parsons of course, who deals in them, both past and present at his two eponymous galleries.
One day while we were having lunch a couple of years ago, Margo asked me if I’d heard of a painter called Angus MacDonald. I told her I’d written his biography about a decade ago. The subject changed (we both move fast), and I forgot about it until early last spring, when Angus called out of the blue inviting me to have coffee with him. He wanted to talk about his Italian sojourn, from which he’d just returned.
After we met, I called Margo and arranged a meeting between them. Angus asked me to come along. So I did the first couple of times they met, until Angus (who despite his background in radio and on the silver screen, is a man of few words, and quite shy), got to know Margo who in turn covers up her shyness with stream of consciousness banter. Amused by their encounters, I recalled my attempts at interviewing Angus for the book he had commissioned me to write in 2010. (Angus MacDonald: An American Artist.) It wasn’t until I hit on the idea of emailing him after each encounter, asking him to extrapolate on specific things he told me, that I began to accumulate enough material to make up the text for the book.
It didn’t take long for the two of them to find common ground however, both of them being Westerners through and through, and when I joined them yesterday, they seemed like old friends, laughing and even joking together as they discussed Angus’ upcoming show at the Blumenschein.
Opening next week, the show will include several new paintings inspired by Angus’ trip to Italy, which impacted him so profoundly, he’s returning right after his show, for a few months. He hopes to travel to France, as well as seeing more of Italy than he did last time. For all of his cumulative experience, Angus had never been to Europe. His farthest flung adventures took him as far as Mexico and Hawaii where he recently discovered some surprising, Japanese roots!
Kobun Chino Otogawa was a famed (Japanese), teacher and practitioner of Zen Buddhism who impacted Angus’ life more than any other had or would. For the next decade after meeting him, Angus studied with the Master and was ordained by Kobun into the lineage of Zen Monks he descended from.
Angus first met Kobun in the early 80’s. He had come to Taos with his late wife Wanda, to visit an old friend, fellow artist, Kelly Pruitt. He had been casting bronzes at Shidoni in Santa Fe and decided to come here on his way back to Marfa.
“One day I was walking down the boardwalk between the Plaza and Bent Street,” he recalls, “and met Kobun.”
Soon he and Wanda relocated to Taos, and Angus has been here, sitting ZaZen and working away on his art ever since. When Kobun died trying to save his drowning daughter in a lake in Switzerland in 2002, Angus mourned his loss, but feels his presence constantly.
“I got my DNA results back recently,” Angus told me, “and after doing a bit of research, found out that one of my great-grandparents who was Portuguese, and had come to Hawaii, had a Japanese father.” He chuckled. “Kobun would have loved that.” He mused.
Angus MacDonald’s story is almost implausible. Like Margo, he too had a charmed youth; exposed to the arts, film and fame at an early age. Born and raised in Marfa, Texas, when Marfa was just another small town in Big Bend country, Angus’ mother was a talented musician and artist who was often gone for months on end playing in orchestras all over Texas. His father was killed in combat in the South Pacific when he was still a baby, and he and his brother (who went on to become a major Radio personality), were raised by their maternal grandmother who owned the Marfa Hotel.
Descended from a noble Scottish family on his mother’s side (he uses the family name MacDonald), Angus traces his heritage back to the Highland (Glengarry) MacDonalds who protected Bonnie Prince Charlie from Cumberland’s forces during the Jacobite uprisings. The family came to Texas from Hannibal, Missouri by way of Virginia and Kentucky after the Civil War.
His great, great Aunt, Cornelia Peake MacDonald’s diary (A Woman’s Civil War) continues to be consulted by scholars researching the Civil War years in the American South. Cornelia’s father, Dr. Humphrey Peake (from Hannibal, Missouri) was mentioned in Mark Twain’s autobiography as “an aristocrat whose wisdom was respected by his listeners.”
Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain’s father was the Justice of the Peace in Hannibal during the time the family resided there, before settling in Texas. Eventually the family wound up in Marfa. Angus’ grandmother bought the old hotel after WWII and ran it until she died.
When Angus was 15, the cast and crew (including the late Taos resident, Dennis Hopper) of Giant came to town. Many stayed at the Marfa Hotel while they filmed the saga of the mythical Ranch, Reata, which Angus would name his short-lived gallery on Kit Carson Road, for, years later.
Dick Moder whom Angus met during that time, would play a big part in Angus’ life. Dick told Angus that if he came to Hollywood after he finished school, he’d help him find work. Years later, in Hollywood, Angus met Dick’s son Mike (Taos resident Julia Roberts’ father-in-law’s ) who remains a close friend.
As a teenager, Angus had worked on local ranches as a cowboy, often crossing the border into Mexico herding thousands of heads of cattle. He would also draw, covering his notebooks in sketches made from memory and imagination, along with notes recounting his adventures. After joining the army at 18, Angus found himself serving with the Military Police in Brooklyn. Hearing that the famed illustrator Norman Rockwell, was teaching in Connecticut, he decided to take classes. The art of illustration would provide him with a good livelihood once he returned to Texas.
In his absence, his brother, Mike (Oatman) went on to become the Program Director at KHEY in El Paso, so after completing his service, Angus got his FCC license and worked at KHEY for the next four years (moonlighting as an illustrator), before relocating to Tucson, Arizona, where he worked at KHOS for five more years. It was in Tucson where the movies came calling after he’d made a name for himself in yet another side gig; riding Rodeo. After a few stunt roles, he met Mike Moder who gave him a role in Rio Lobo.
Angus moved to Los Angeles and stayed for more than a decade, but his heart wasn’t really in it, so one day, he packed up his belongings, loaded them all into the brand new sports car that he bought before he left, and made his way back to Marfa, where he turned the top floor of the hotel into his studio, and went to work.
When Angus and I met for lunch last week, to talk about his show, I mentioned I’d recently seen Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant time capsule into 60’s Hollywood and the Manson murders. “It sounds like the story of my life,” Angus laughed, as he recalled working on the Spahn Ranch and seeing Manson’s girls dumpster diving in the area. “That coulda been about me,” he shook his head when I told him Pitt’s character in the film, is a stuntman.
In 2010 Angus had approached me to write a biography about his life. Two years later the book was published. The book is filled with color plates of the artist’s work alongside the biography, and will be available for purchase at the Blumenschein during his show. Except for a few editing errors, including the spelling of his friends, the Carradine brothers’ name, which I fought Angus over tooth and nail (but he won even though he was wrong), I am grateful to have been a part of it.
The opportunity to work with Angus was a real gift and I learned so much during the process. I also came away from it with a friend. Margo too has become a friend, and so as I sat with Angus that early spring day, I remembered her having asked me about him, and told him about her,
“Would you like me to introduce you?” I had asked him. He shyly responded that he’d meet her if I was there. So the following week, the three of us had sat together at the same table, in the La Fonda on Taos Plaza, next door to the old theatre Margo’s father once owned. Not even a year has passed and here we are.
Last week I asked Angus how he was feeling; this being his first public show in Taos since closing Reata a year before his wife Wanda passed, so he could care for her. It has been a year and a half of grieving her loss and I hoped this show and his forthcoming trip would dispel some sorrow.
“Thirty-seven years is a long time to spend with someone,” he commented after I’d asked how he was doing. But he was upbeat about his upcoming show.
“Oh it’s a great honor for me,” he responded. “To be showing in the home and studio of such a great painter – and in the company of other great artists – means a lot.” He reflected on his years of working quietly away in Taos, no fanfare, no publicity. Not many would even begin to guess that the cowboy sharply dressed in his pressed jeans, Stetson and boots, strolling across the plaza to his bright red convertible VW, was an artist, let alone a Zen monk. Understated does not even begin to describe Angus’ approach to his work; it is his practice. He just does it. Like sitting ZaZen.
“Facing the wall,” he says.
“How is Angus doing?” Robert Parsons asked me sometime ago.
“Painting away.” I responded.
“He’s a very good painter,” Robert said. “I showed his work for a while.”
“If anyone deserves to be called a Taos Master, it’s Angus,” Margo said yesterday as the three of us had lunch together. “He uses the same palette as the TSA, the colors he paints with are the colors of Taos, and like the TSA he is an artist who has developed his own collector’s list, he understands the business of art.”
And that is true. Angus, for all his understatement, sells his work. While other artists and galleries complain about their lack of sales this season, Angus’ work continues to be sold to old and new collectors alike, online and through email. His years of dedication to his work have paid off. Hence three months in Europe, not just in the cards, but booked!
Angus MacDonald show, sale and book signing at the Blumenschein, opens with a reception for the artist, on Saturday, October 5th from 3-5pm.
For more information please see the Taos Historic Museum’s site linked below.
For more information on Angus MacDonald and to see his work, please visit his site linked below.
Angus MacDonald’s work is also available here: saatchiart/amac