Angus MacDonald’s story reads like a novel.
Born and raised in Marfa, Texas before Donald Judd arrived and staked out the town’s Art cred, when Marfa was just another small town in Big Bend country, albeit with an eerie light show all of its own.
Angus’ mother was a talented musician and artist who was often gone for months on end playing in orchestras around Texas. His father was killed in the South Pacific during the war when he was quite small 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.
Of stalwart Scots descent (Angus traces his heritage back to the Highland (Glengarry) MacDonalds who protected Bonnie Prince Charlie from Cumberland’s forces), the family had come 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) is used by scholars the world over, 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 at the time.
After arriving in Texas, Angus’ great-grandfather bought a ranch in Sherwood but eventually the family wound up in Marfa. Angus’ grandmother bought the 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 were lodged at the Marfa Hotel while they filmed the saga of the mythical Ranch, Reata.
Befriended by James Dean, Angus recalls hanging out with the talented young actor, checking out the local girls and doing what young men do during their down time.
“I liked him a lot,” Angus told me. “He was straightforward and down to earth.”
Also on the set was Dick Moder (Taos resident Julia Robert’s father-in-law’s father) who 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, who remains a close friend.
During his high school years, Angus worked on local Ranches as a cowboy and continued after completing high school, with forays across the border into Mexico and plenty of adventures to accompany them. He would also draw, covering his notebooks in sketches made from memory and imagination
At eighteen, Angus joined the army and wound up with the MIlitary Police Force in Brooklyn. NYC where he decided to take classes in Connecticut with Norman Rockwell. He learned the art of illustration which would provide him with a good living once he returned to Texas.
Meanwhile his brother, Mike Oatman had gone on to become the Program Director at KHEY in El Paso, so after completing his service, Angus acquired an FCC license and worked at KHEY for the next four years, moonlighting as an illustrator.
He then went to Tucson, Arizona where he worked at KHOS for five years. It was in Tucson where the movie bug bit and 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 a decade until painting proved to be more his calling than acting, and one day, he packed up his brand new, little sportscar and drove back to Marfa, claiming the top floor of the hotel as his studio, and got down to work.
He arrived in Taos in the early 80’s with his wife Wanda, visiting his old friend, fellow artist, Kelly Pruitt. He had been casting bronzes at Shidoni in Santa Fe and decided to come to Taos on his way back to Marfa. As it has with so many painters before him, Taos’ magical light captivated Angus and soon he and Wanda relocated.
“One day I was walking down the boardwalk between the Plaza and Bent Street,” he recalls, “and met Kobun.”
Kobun Chino Otagawa was a famed teacher and practitioner of Zen Buddhism who was to change Angus’ life. Over the next decade Angus studied with the Master and was ordained by Kobun into the lineage of Zen Monks he belonged to.
In 2010 Angus approached me to write a biography about his life. Two years later the book, An American Artist was published. The book is jam packed with gorgeous colour plates of the artist’s work alongside the Biography of his charmed and colourful life, and is available for purchase through the artist’s gallery here in Taos. Reata.
Named for the Ranch in Giant, the movie that impacted so many lives but few as directly as Angus’, Reata means lasso in Spanish. Fitting for this Zen Cowboy who has finally corralled all of his steeds and has focused his tremendous energy and talent on painting.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of Angus’ story here, but you can discover more in the book, by visiting his site linked below this post. And do visit his beautiful gallery/studio when you are are in these neck of the woods. Angus does do commissions as well.
Meanwhile enjoy these glorious images – some painted with his right hand since a fall on the ice injured his left. Angus is now completely ambidextrous, but his right-handed paintings are intriguing in that they abstract and distill the form and landscape he sees with his inner eye, down to the essence.
All photographs by Lucy Padilla