On Art: Painter ToniOnley ‘darling of the common folk’

In preparation for a retrospective exhibition of Toni Onley’s work, I interviewed Gloria Onley, the artist’s second wife. Because her hearing is not good, I agreed to provide questions by email and I share her answers here. An exhibition at Winchester Galleries ranges over the entire career of this excellent painter and printmaker, who died in 2004 at age 76. An opening reception takes place Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, where prints by Onley grace every room.

Q: Toni came to Victoria in 1966 so he could take up a position for a year at the University of Victoria. Did you get to know Victoria at that time?

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A: I was expecting our son, James Anthony Onley, who was born on Dec. 17, 1966, so I didn’t get out much. Toni had always wanted to be a pilot, and we were living close to the airport. So, with flying lessons and his teaching and his painting, he was quite busy, and I was quite house-bound, as I couldn’t drive at the time. Toni knew many Victoria artists, including [Herbert] Seibner, [Jack] Wise and [Flemming] Jorgensen. I particularly remember Pat Martin Bates. Who could forget her?


Q: I have always associated Toni’s art with the “calligraphic approach,” beginning with Mark Tobey and evolving through the development of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s collection of Japanese and Chinese art. In this, he was close to Jack Wise and Lam Chin Chek. Do you see his work as part of this “movement?”

A: Yes. Toni began as a landscape painter on the Isle of Man. In the 1950s, in Mexico, he became an abstract painter. In the 1960s, in London and Vancouver, he worked through the elaborate vortexes of the Polar Series and the minimalist Zone and Limit series, slowly returning through the 1970s to landscape painting. By 1970, he was doing sumi ink paintings, abstractions of landscape elements, such as tree, rock or cloud.

He was enthralled by the Japanese and Chinese calligraphic tradition. From then on, the song of the brush informs most of his watercolours, particularly those of the 1980s. From a subject matter, abstraction became the other influence on his landscapes, particularly on his large paintings.

He used calligraphy more explicitly in the 1990s to produce an astonishing array of small abstractions, discovered in boxes in his studio after his death. Eventually, this impulse culminated in his 2000-2003 series of large magazine collages. Preserved in Rhoplex, like flying insects in amber, they were partly surrealistic, partly landscape and partly abstract. The public admiration of his landscapes after 1980 diverted attention from his other works.

He was pleased by his recognition as a landscape artist, but he also regretted that his other works attracted little attention.


Q: Toni made his mark as a painter of resolutely abstract paintings and slowly transformed into a painter of easily recognizable landscapes. This seems like the reverse of the typical evolution of Modernism, in which many painters of his generation began as realists and became progressively more abstract and eventually minimalist.

Did he notice this evolution?

A: Yes. He began as a landscape painter, then recapitulated the evolution of Modernism in his work in Mexico, and then in the 1970s, slowly reversed it. By 1980, his watercolours are recognizably landscape, but at the same time, quite abstract.

His landscapes became less abstract as time went on, and more popular, while the abstract impulse was diverted to produce the small collages of the 1990s, and then the large magazine collages. For most of his career, he was doing landscape with varying degrees of abstraction.


Q: Toni first became famous for his success among the elite — the Canada Council, the Tate Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Yet after his “million-dollar sale” to the Phantom Collector, he became the darling of the common folk. Elizabeth Levinson even called him “the people’s painter.” Which do you think was a more important achievement for him?

A: I think both were important to him.


Q: Toni made a point of dropping in (like a god, from the sky) to art groups, art shows, school classes and other art-related situations all up and down the coast, an unexpected generosity. Did he feel a responsibility to the public?

A: He liked people who liked art. And he was particularly sympathetic to people who were making art, hence his involvement with arts groups. It was a kind of beneficial extension of his ego that he found stimulating and rewarding, both for himself and the people he met.


Q: The gallery gathered for this show work drawn from a “private stock,” a repertoire the likes of which will not be seen again. Some of these paintings are masterworks, obviously set aside by someone who had an opportunity to select the very best. Would you comment on the provenance of these particular works?

A: Some of the large paintings are masterworks that were only still in his studio because he was such a prolific artist. James and Lynn [his son and daughter] hope to keep a few large works, but the exigencies of estate management are working against this. A few of the last of these, carefully chosen from among the works left in the estate, are in the show at Winchester.


Toni Onley retrospective exhibition West Coast Landscape: Select Paintings from the Artist’s Estate, at Winchester Galleries (796 Humboldt St., 250-382-7750), July 1 to 31.

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