Margo Macdonald: Artist, Teacher, Mentor


A passion for art, a love of water and a capacity for nurturing that comes with being the eldest of five children — these are a few of the things that have shaped the arc of Vaughn resident Margo Macdonald’s life.

The daughter of an oil man, she was born in west Texas, and moved to Calgary and the plains of central Canada when she was 9. “Everywhere you looked it was flat with blue sky, endless,” she said. By the time she was ready to leave home for college, “I wanted mountains. I wanted gray. I wanted water.”

Margo looked at schools in the Pacific Northwest. The University of Washington was too big for her taste. Whitman, in Walla Walla, didn’t have water. The University of Puget Sound in Tacoma was just right.

A summer program at the Banff School of Fine Arts led her to sign up for every painting and drawing class she could manage at UPS. Her instructor suggested that she enroll in art school, and by the next summer she was at the Rhode Island School of Design. The classes — printmaking, painting and drawing — were very focused, structured and intense, and in some ways isolating.

“I knew I was not going to be an East Coast person,” she said. “And I had a boyfriend I was missing.” After a year in Providence, she headed back to UPS where she completed a degree in art education. The boyfriend, Bruce Macdonald, was glad to see her return. “I admired how independent and contained she was,” Bruce said. “She was perfectly happy painting and drawing in her room while the rest of us were out looking for the next party. I was sort of jealous. And what she produced was always so incredible.”

Bruce and Margo married and moved to Whidbey Island where Bruce and his sister were mussel farmers, but they returned to the South Sound when his father asked him to help run the family business. “Bruce was willing to drive only so far for work, and he drew a big circle. The property we bought, on Crescent Beach Road, was just inside the perimeter,” Margo said.

Painting took a back seat and was replaced by looms and wool when her daughters were young. “I put away anything messy,” she said. “Tapestry and weaving I could drop in a second.” Margo’s mother had given her a book on backstrap weaving for Christmas one year and she was intrigued by the process. She bought a frame loom, then a table loom and finally a floor loom. She joined the Tacoma Weaver’s Guild. “Tapestry is another way to process a visual image. With painting you can tweak here and there. With a tapestry you start at the bottom and go to the top and then it is finished.”

Margo started a pilot program to bring art into the classroom with third graders at Vaughn Elementary School and also worked to connect Key Peninsula artists. Kathy Bauer, a friend and photographer, recalled that time: “Dennis Taylor was working to find mentors for high-risk students. He asked Margo to identify artists who could work with kids whose interest was art,” she said. “That planted a seed and inspired her to create a community of artists and to offer classes and experiences for all ages.”

The two founded Two Waters Arts Alliance in 2001, modeled on Vashon Allied Arts (now Vashon Center for the Arts). “I had the tenacity, but Margo had the background in art and had board experience,” Bauer said. “I learned everything I know about boards from Margo. She is a natural organizer and leader.”

In 2003 Margo was offered a job teaching sixth grade art at Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma. She jumped at the chance and taught there for seven years.

More recently Margo established the annual curated art show at the Key Center Library and the Art Walk, both now managed by TWAA. She remains active in the Blend Art Group, a group of artists who met monthly prior to the pandemic. Of the more than two dozen members, about half would gather to work on a project together or to listen to a presentation. She continues to keep them in communication with each other until they can meet in person again. “She may hide her light underneath a basket, but she has been an organizing force. I can’t say enough about what she has done for the arts community,” said Delia McGinnis, the current TWAA president.

Margo describes herself as a summertime painter and a wintertime weaver. In the summer she can throw open the studio windows that overlook Case Inlet. Her work has been shown in a number of juried exhibitions and is in several collections.

For the last decade Margo has worked on a series of tapestries of Washington State rivers, completing one or two a year. A ritual goes into creating each tapestry — an expedition, usually with Bruce or her mother. (Her parents moved to Gig Harbor about 20 years ago; her father died in 2012). Margo selects a destination, takes pictures from a number of locations along the river, and selects the image she wants to use. The completed tapestry includes longitude and latitude, and she writes about each river, including where it starts and ends, and how long it is.

Some of her work is commissioned and some is sold by word of mouth. “There are years when I don’t sell anything,” Margo said. “Selling is nice because it means the piece is going someplace. But for me it is about the process, the problem-solving. I want to capture something that says, ‘Here is my experience of this place.’ ”