A Vancouver artist widely known for his distinctive landscapes, Toni Onley was born in 1928 on the Isle of Man and was educated in England and Mexico. He made his first trip to the Arctic in 1974 and later published Onley's Arctic: Diaries and Paintings of the High Arctic. His 1983 painting of Cheakamus Glacier adorns the cover of The Great Canadian Anecdote Contest, which contains Onley's account of stranding his private plane on the glacier. His paintings also appear in Walls of India, co-authored with George Woodcock to raise funds for the Canada India Village Aid Society, an organization in which Onley was a founding member. His work is also the subject of a critical study by Roger Boulet entitled Toni Onley, A Silent Thunder. A recipient of the Order of Canada, Onley published Tony Onley's British Columbia: A Tribute (Raincoast, 1999) and an autobiography, Flying Colours: The Toni Onley Story (Harbour Publishing, 2003), as told to Gregory Strong, that recounts his victory as a 'Rolls-Royce rebel' who fought against Revenue Canada on a personal taxation issue, threatening to burn his paintings. Onley died on February 29, 2004 in a single-plane accident when he crashed his plane into the Fraser River while presumably practicing landings and take-offs.
[BCBW 2004] "Art"
Review of the author's work by BC studies:
Alpine Anatomy: The Mountain Art of Arnold Shives
[BCBW 2004] "Art"
Review of the author's work by BC studies:
Alpine Anatomy: The Mountain Art of Arnold Shives
Articles: 3 Articles for this author
Toni Onley’s Arctic
interview (Autumn 1990)
by Robert H. Jones
Long recognized as one of Canada's most popular landscape painters, Toni Onley is also known as a modern-day adventurer. His travels often find him in situations as varied as the top of a snow-capped British Columbian glacier, trekking the Stein or Carmanah valleys, rafting Alberta's Old Man River, or piloting his amphibious Lake Buccaneer airplane around the island-studded waters of Ontario's Georgian Bay. No matter where or how Onley travels, his paint box, palette, brushes, and a supply of T.H. Saunders 140-pound-weight paper are always at hand. With these, selected portions of his surroundings are recorded with water colour paintings rendered right at the site.
When first interviewed for Art Impressions (Fall 1987), Onley had recently completed the last of three summer-long trips to the Arctic, and was contemplating a book to chronicle his experiences. When Onley's Arctic became reality in 1989, the profusely illustrated compilation of his daily diaries was well received and has since nearly sold out. Although his paintings are abstract and ambiguous, Onley's writing is clear, candid, and occasionally poetic, especially when describing the colours encountered throughout the Arctic landscape.
Toni Onley is also an articulate conversationalist -- perceptive, observant, outspoken, and often quite witty. He was last interviewed at his Vancouver home in May, 1990.
-- Art Impressions
I guess the obvious question is, "What first attracted you to
I was teaching summer school in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, in
1972. The people I was staying with were friends of Pierre
Trudeau, and one evening they invited him and his wife to dinner. During our conversation, Trudeau said my work reminded him of the Arctic -- at that point he owned a few of my things. He asked if I had ever been up there. I said I hadn't, but that I'd often thought of it, and that I'd love to go some time.
That conversation stayed with me, and about six months later I
dropped him a note and asked if there was any possibility of
getting government transportation to the Arctic. I was thinking
of a military aircraft, which probably wouldn't have been very
satisfactory. You know -- they'd drop me off in the middle of
nowhere and say, "Well, Toni, we're not a scheduled airline, but
we might be back on the next military exercise." Then they'd take off and I'd freeze to death. Trudeau wrote back and said, "We've been going crazy around the office trying to find out how to get you up there. It doesn't seem like the military is the best way, but leave it with me and I'll see if I can think of anything else." He mentioned various bush pilots he knew who flew out of Pangnirtung and Frobisher Bay and places like that, and suggested I might try them. In those days I didn't have two nickels to rub together -- I couldn't charter an aircraft and fly all over the Arctic like a millionaire -- so I forgot it. Then, out of the blue I got another letter from him saying, "Somebody suggested the Coast Guard, so I got hold of them and you're tentatively booked."; That's how it came about that I spent the whole summer on the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis St. Laurent, and why I thanked Pierre Trudeau in the book for coming up with the idea.
There are frequent references to the colours and shapes you
encountered. Most of us visualize the Arctic as flat and white,
but your descriptions suggest otherwise.
It's amazing how people who aren't used to looking for colour
will look at snow and say it's white. Even in the south, if you
look at snow properly, you'll see the range of colour. White
absorbs all colour, in fact that's what it is: all the colours of the spectrum. It's even more evident up there.
Take the colour you get in icebergs for example: When you move
off to one side, the light breaks up in such a way that the whole iceberg becomes pink. Go for the other horizon and the whole thing becomes blue. I wrote about the colour on Coburg Island when we got stuck there -- it was like being inside the Blue Grotto. You get this light absorbed into the icebergs, but you don't know where it's coming from. It's like they're plugged in to electrical outlets and glowing all by themselves. Some of the aquamarine colour you get in an iceberg is so strident it's like a California swimming pool -- the same colour as Windex. When you're painting it, you have to tone it down because it looks too pretty.
One occasion I recall was when our ship was going slowly through
a cathedral grove of icebergs. They were towering above us, and
with the midnight sun it was like travelling on the moon in the
middle of the night. God, it was so beautiful you could hear
angels' voices singing. There wasn't a soul around, so I went
down into the crews' mess and said, "Come on you guys, it's
fabulous out there! You've got to see this, you've got to see the light, it's just incredible!" They said, "Not now, Toni, we're having a union meeting."
Coast Guard crews obviously have different priorities than
painters. A bit further on you wrote: "Sometimes I face away
from the sun into sharp, cold colour and then turn into the sun
where the colours are soft and warm, a delicate mixture of shades of pale rose madder, yellow ochre and cobalt violet -- pure light and colour with all detail dissolving before it."
That's right. The summer sun up there is quite low on the
horizon. If you look into the sun, objects break up more and you
reduce things to pure shape more than in detail. For example: you look away from the sun and you see the leaves on a tree; you look into the sun, you see only the shape of the tree. A lot of works in that book are looking into the sun, rather than away from it. Most painters want to see a subject in detail, and they position themselves so they're not looking into the sun. I particularly like looking into the sun because it simplifies what I'm doing. It also intensifies the quality of light that I'm involved with.
I tend to be moving away from putting in detail -- simplifying my work. It tends to get more complicated when I'm going from
painting to painting and not taking stock of what I'm doing.
Then, when I look back through it, I see that it's progressed
from something quite abstract and simple in its organization, to
something that is more recognizable. I'd like to get back where
it's more ambiguous, so people can read their own interpretation
into it rather than be told what it is. Intimate what it is --
make a couple of possibilities -- so they ask, "Am I looking at a rock or a log? Is that a cloud?" I also like the idea of having ambiguous spaces in paintings -- is it in the distance or is it closer? -- playing around with that kind of idea.
On your second trip, in 1975, you flew your Lake Buccaneer
east to Quebec, then north to the Arctic. Alone! What possessed
you to tackle such an undertaking?
I'd harboured thoughts of doing it for years. It would have been
impossible with my original aircraft, but being amphibious the
Lake was ideal for the job. I decided to give it a try when the
West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative at Cape Dorset invited me up to
teach print making. They had some new lithography equipment and
their chief lithographer was Wally Brannen, from the Nova Scotia
College of Art in Halifax. I'd made prints with Wally before, so
he knew we could work together, that I'm not a precious artist
who throws tantrums or anything like that.
The Inuit artists were the older generation. They spoke
Inuktitut, not English, so demonstrations were the only way we
could teach them. That and having them help me make the prints
-- sponge the stones, things like that. I always had a crowd of
artists around to help, and a young girl did translating when we
needed it. I spent the whole summer doing that, and it worked
very well. Nowadays, Inuit art is created for the southern market. Their art has always existed -- their artifacts go back thousands of years -- but they were carvers, never drawers on paper. They would carve a seal or something from soapstone, perhaps, or whale bone or ivory, then pass it around and everybody would feel it. It was a nice, smooth, tactile thing, and everybody would be rather thrilled by it. But it was like a child's toy -- when they moved camp, they'd leave it behind. Unlike a carving done in the old days for an Inuit's own pleasure, one done for the southern market has a pedestal, a flat bottom so you can set it down on the table. It's not meant to be handed around and felt, then tossed aside; it's created for a specific purpose.
When the anthropologist, Franz Boas, went up there at the end of
the last century, he handed out sheets of paper to the Inuit and
asked them to draw their experiences -- what they did to make a
living. He got the first primitive drawings back. Some of the
older, more primitive people were still doing rather nice work,
even back in the Sixties, but they are all gone now.
Parr did beautiful primitive drawings. He was the Rembrandt of
the Arctic, and I collected his drawings for a long time. He
actually painted his experiences, relived them through his
drawings. When he shot his foot off in a hunting accident, he
supported himself through his drawings. A few years ago, one of
his prints brought fifty thousand dollars. But his drawings are
still quite cheap -- even today you can buy a Parr for a thousand dollars, which is amazing. Because they were so cheap, I collected a lot of Parr's drawings. A couple of years ago I gave them to the University of Lethbridge for their collection of Inuit art.
You described the immensity of the Arctic, its sheer expanse,
and the difficulty in determining scale and distances. Did you
ever get used to that?
No, not really. Flying in the Arctic and travelling by ship is
the same -- everything looks minuscule. When you're flying over
the landscape and see a little white speck, it could be a polar
bear or a sea gull; you can't tell. Another thing that disorients you is that you can see so much further than in the south. The clarity and lack of moisture in the air makes it possible to see a long way. I once set off on foot for a bluff, a walk I thought would take about 15 minutes. I walked and walked and walked, but didn't get any closer. Then I walked and walked and walked again, but still wasn't any closer. I thought: Well, this is getting serious -- it's getting late so I'd better head back.
Up till then, the wind had been behind me, so I hadn't noticed
how strong it was. When I turned around it was in my face, so I
had to fight it all the way back. I'll tell you, by the time I
got to the shack I was damned near dead from the cold. It turned
out that the bluff I was heading for was about ten miles away.
You seem to have developed quite an affinity for the Inuit.
How are they being affected by the activities involved with
Traditionally, the Inuit have supported one another, but that is
breaking down and it's killing their communities. They were
nomadic, used to living in small communities of a couple of
families. With eight hundred people, Cape Dorset is like the New
York of the Arctic. Booze is a big problem -- heavy drinking,
fights, shootings, stabbings, suicides. Yet the only reason these communities exist is to educate their children in the imported southern school system. Other than that, the Inuit could live on the land very comfortably.
They take children away to places like Frobisher Bay to attend
high school. When they go back home, they speak English and have
a fair education, but it doesn't equip them to live in their own
communities. They don't respect the elders, who just speak
Inuktitut. The elders hold the knowledge of survival: how to hunt and fish and live in the Arctic, but the kids don't give a damn because they don't have to fish or hunt, they just go down to the co-op and buy a can of beans. There's nothing to focus their lives and it's very, very unhealthy. It's an example of
everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong. If the
government had set out to destroy families in the Arctic in a
consistent, knowing way, they couldn't have done it better.
And the environment itself?
It has become one of the most spoiled places on earth. Northern
European countries are dumping toxins into their rivers, which
wind up in our Arctic. Now the natives can't eat the fish because it's so full of mercury. They still do, but it's bad for them.
There's a lot of garbage up there -- millions and millions of
discarded oil drums. Down here an oil drum might sit around for a hundred years before it rots back into the ground; up there
you're looking at thousands of years because there's not enough
moisture in the air to rust them. We seem intent on dragging
southern technology to the north, rather than adapting to the
area's strengths. We shouldn't be hauling diesel fuel up there;
the wind always blows in the Arctic, so we should use it to
generate power. In the summertime there's 24 hours of sunlight,
so we should use solar panels to heat and grow things in
greenhouses. What we need up there is another Buckminster Fuller, someone who could use the available technology without destroying the environment.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: A writer often anguishes over the closing
paragraph of an article, but in this case I have simply left it
to Toni Onley, a man who obviously cares very deeply about the
Arctic and its indigenous people. Onley's Arctic ends on this
thought-provoking note: "What price must we pay for Northern
development? Already our polar bears are full of toxins. It may
be selfish, but I am content with what we have: what the late
Glenn Gould called 'our miles and miles of miles and miles' --
enough to fill the imagination of all of us and future
generations. For the Canadians, the High Arctic is a zone of the
mind, and a large part of our consciousness. It is our identity;
without it we would be in crisis."
THE LANDSCAPE ART OF TONI ONLEY
Profile (Autumn 1987)
by Robert H. Jones
Canadian landscape painter Toni Onley is a flamboyant individual
who drives a Rolls Royce and flies his own airplanes. He is also
a compassionate humanitarian who quietly devotes time, effort and money to Canada India Village Aid (CIVA), of which he is
In 1983, Onley created a national furor by taking on Revenue
Canada. Faced with having 1,058 prints assessed for tax purposes
as if he were a manufacturer with unsold inventory, he threatened to burn them on Vancouver's Wreck Beach. Politicians and cabinet ministers became involved, and the Canadian Conference on the Arts asked then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau to intervene. A moratorium on the taxation of artists was declared in time to stop what would have been a $1 million bonfire.
A year later, he was again in the national news. During a
painting trip with photographer John Reeves, Onley crashed while
attempting to take off from Cheakamus Glacier, 120 km north of
Vancouver. Reeves was knocked unconscious and Onley suffered a
broken leg. The two spent a cold, terrifying 17 hours huddled in
the wrecked airplane, which dangled over a deep crevasse,
precariously supported by its wings.
Shortly after being rescued, Onley quipped from his hospital bed. "Toni's not going up there again for a long time. Anyone who wants a glacier painting had better get one now."
Onley is best appreciated in person. Warm, witty, articulate,
self-assured and opinionated, he laughs easily and his eyes
twinkle with mirth as he tells self-depreciating tales.
Recently, as we sat in his studio, I asked him to relate his
"As a child growing up on the Isle of Man, I never had an
identity crisis -- I always knew I was an artist. In grade one,
the teacher asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" One girl was going to be a nun, one boy wanted to drive a train -- the usual childhood ambitions. I said, 'I'm going to be an
artist.' Everybody laughed and the teacher said, 'Toni, why don't you be practical?'
"My Dad, God bless him, was an actor. He didn't want another
artist in the family -- you know, cutting off my ear and living
off the family after I was 40, so he put me into architecture.
British architects also train in land surveying, which was a
blessing. In 1948, when our family arrived in Ontario, I couldn't find work in architecture, so I worked as a surveyor. I did very little painting at that time as I'd arrive home exhausted after working all day."
Onley married Mary Burrows in 1949. He was 20, she 18. A
daughter, Jennifer, was born the following year, followed by Lynn in 1952. "I was trying to bring up a family, so there wasn't much time paint. But I did manage two summers at the Doon School of Fine Art, near Kitchener.
In 1955, Mary died suddenly of a freak thymus disorder. The
tragedy devastated Onley. "Mom and Dad were living at Penticton.
Their repertory company had gone broke there, so they stayed.
They phoned and said 'Pack the kids on a plane and come out here
and we'll sort it out. It was the best thing I ever did.
"I worked as an architect, designing schools -- about 24 of them
throughout the Interior of British Columbia. But, after a year I
got terribly depressed, because I wanted to be a painter.
"I applied for a scholarship at The Instituto Allende in San
Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I got a tuition scholarship, which was all the excuse I needed to go. I needed money, so I hired a local auctioneer and sold all of my paintings -- about 250 water
colours. I averaged about $5 a painting, but that $1,300 provided enough money for us to live in Mexico for a year."
Onley found the school inadequate, but life in San Miguel was
stimulating -- and economical. He experimented with new painting
styles, but his attempts dissatisfied him. In a rage, he tore up
the paintings. "A whole new vocabulary of shapes began to emerge
as the pieces fell to the floor."
From frustration and destruction, he discovered and developed an
intense interest in abstract collages. "After a year I ran out of money, so I headed for Vancouver. I'd done quite a few collages, which I brought with me. I found a gallery to handle my work, then lucked into a show at the Vancouver Art Gallery when another show was cancelled. My work started to sell -- my first bonafide sales -- to people I didn't know! When you sell to someone who's
not a relative, you're on your way.
"I went back to Mexico for another two years. My Vancouver dealer sent me at least a couple of hundred dollars a month, which made me the richest man in town -- I could stand drinks for everybody.
"American painting of that period was by two attitudes of mind.
One was the blind intuitive action painting. After you had
thrashed around for a while, you sat back with a conscious mind
and made decisions about what you had done. If a painting became
too complicated to preconceive, it narrowed you to a point where
you couldn't move. If a happy accident happened, you couldn't
respond to it, because that wasn't the original idea. You had to
go with it. Even today, I never draw before I paint -- I want the painting to carry me in any direction that it might."
After returned to Vancouver in 1960, Onley set up a home and
studio. He married again in 1961, and that same year was awarded
a Junior Canada Council grant. Two years later he received a
Senior Canada Fellowship, after which he returned to England to
study and work.
Tragedy again marred his life in 1964. While the Onleys were
sailing home to Canada, his daughter Jennifer was killed in a car accident while en route to meet their ship.
In 1966, a son, James, was born. That was the same year Onley
took flying lessons. One year later, he bought a used Champion
Skytrack. With it, he flew to remote beaches, there to paint the
West Coast landscapes for which he is best known. An amphibious
Lake Buccaneer was later purchased so he could fly into mountain
lakes. This was followed by the ski-equipped Wilga 80, which
nearly became his coffin.
Asked if he foresaw future change in his style, Onley replied, "I never predict changes. Change happens in the work -- it's the
nature of the way I work. One painting leads to another. I may
not realize something completely in one painting, but it provides the germ of an idea which I can better solve in another painting. That's how change takes place -- from painting to painting.
"Water colours I did 10 years ago were considerably more assembled that those I do today. Much more abstract, more concerned with large flat shapes and establishing spaces in the paintings, much more direct. Today's work is probably becoming more realistic. You can identify the subject more readily today than you could have 10 years ago when I did what might be called archetypal landscapes -- they could be almost anywhere. Today I do more particular types of landscapes.
"I hanker to get back to a simpler type of painting, to throw
things out that are superfluous. I try to say as much as I can
with as little as I can. It's like poetry: say a lot with a
little. I don't sit down and paint Garibaldi Mountain. There's
too much information there to paint every leaf, every tree, every crevice -- it becomes too much. I take three or four minute details out of the landscape -- a cloud, a section of the
mountain, a rock, a reflection on the water, something happening
in the foreground -- then I move them around so they all make
sense in relation to each other."
When I mentioned the subject of wildlife art versus fine art,
Onley said, "We can't confuse nature with art. City council would never approve a great monument in our harbor, for example. They would say 'Why would we want a great, free-standing sculpture in our harbor when we have these mountains.' The mountains aren't ours; what man makes is ours -- like the Acropolis is ours. It enhances nature and nature enhances it. They work in tandem with each other.
"These confusions will never really be resolved because they are
set positions that people take as to what is art and what is
nature. The Bateman camp is totally involved with being
absolutely faithful to nature. Their intent is: I'm going to
paint a particular bird in a particular position doing a
particular thing at a particular time of day. It's all
preconceived and planned out. It becomes very hard work and
there's no room for surprises. It's like digging trenches - hard
physical work that crosses your eyes. But it gives a lot of
pleasure to people who identify with animals and birds, so that's fine.
"For me, the great joy of painting is the surprise. When I start painting in the morning, I have no idea what it is going to look like when I finally put my brush down. It may be the best thing I've ever done in my life, or it might be the worst. God only knows.
"Water colour is my favourite medium and I use Oriental brushes.
When you flop down a goat hair brush. it stays bent. As you paint and flop it around, you're making sort of controlled mistakes. You're on the edge of disaster all the time, but at the same time on the edge of possibility.
"The best water colours are the ones that fall off the brush. It's what the Chinese call 'The Song of the Brush.' It just happens. It has little to do with the ability to paint, but it has everything to do with the ability to recognize something when it happens.
"When I was doing abstract collages, if someone had told me, 'One of these days you're going to be back out in the country, drying water colours over a fire like you used to do when you were a kid,' I would have said, 'You're out of your mind.'
"I don't know of any other Canadian painters who sit out there on a bald rock and paints like I do. In the 19th century, that was the way people painted: they sat right out there with their
easels. Even Van Gogh sat in a cornfield to paint. Now, they do
it mostly in the studio. They go out and do some rough sketches
or take a lot of photographs, then they beetle back to the studio and compose something out of that. I look at myself as being either the last of a tradition or the first of a new breed. I have no idea.
"The Group of Seven went out and did sketches on birch panels,
right on the spot. I think they are the best things they ever
did. But when Tom Thompson went back to his studio and did those
huge things like 'Jack Pine,' they died in the studio. They are
just big blow-ups and they've lost all their life, that immediate contact with nature."
My last question to Onley was to ask what lies in the future.
"Everybody is very curious about the Arctic, so I think a book
about it would sell very well, particularly one written by an
artist. I've collected diaries over three years, so that's my
next big project. I see it as a very nice coffee table book,
top-heavy with photographs and reproductions of paintings. What
do you think?"
What did I think? I promptly placed an order. It will be worth
-- Art Impressions
Toni Onley Artists’ Project
News Release (2007)
Island Mountain Arts is very pleased to announce that the 'Wells Artists' Project' is to be renamed the 'Toni Onley Artists'' Project'. World renowned BC artist Toni Onley (1928-2004) very much embodies the spirit of the Wells Artists' Project. He had a great passion for going into remote areas in order to gain inspiration, he was also very savvy in the business of being a successful Canadian artist. In re-naming the project we hope to honor these aspects of of Toni's artistic career and spirit.
The renaming is the first step in a long term vision to develop an eight-month artist development program in Wells called the Toni Onley School where participating Artists will live and work in the remote hamlet of historic Wells in order to create a body of work for exhibition.