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Toni Onley at Winchester Gallery

By Robert Amos March 24, 2003

} Toni Onley at Winchester Gallery 1545 Fort Street Victoria, B.C. 595-2777 ( until March 29 ). For more information visit www.winchestergalleriesltd.com or www.tonionley.com 'There¹s nothing like watercolour,' Onley sighs, 'for the sheer pleasure of it. Nothing else gives me that immediate feedback. I'm like an addict - if I'm suddenly confronted by something beautiful, I need to have a sheet of watercolour paper, like a smoker looking for a cigarette.' Don't introduce Toni Onley. Just say the words artist - Rolls Royce -seaplane - watercolour, and this sturdy bearded man, typically topped with a Greek fisherman's cap, comes to mind. He is perhaps British Columbia's most visible artist. He and I had a leisurely look around the surprisingly large gathering of his work found at the Winchester Galleries at the moment. I kept my pen busy while he shared some of the details of his remarkable life. Toni Onley was born on the Isle of Man, a tiny little nation between England and Ireland in the Irish Sea. 'It¹s only about ten miles wide,' Onley explains, 'but everybody knows me.' He beams. 'They have sort of adopted me. I'm a big fish, a sort of local hero. At the opening of my show, I was introduced in Gaelic and then in English.' Onley had a show throughout last summer at the National Gallery of the Isle of Man. And he also designed their postage stamps. 'The Isle of Man is an offshore bank, and everybody's a millionaire!' Fortune has truly smiled on this man: to be the favoured son of a tiny country where everyone is a millionaire. He averred that the arrangement has its charms. 'Visually it is really my spiritual home. The weather changes every fifteen minutes. The greens! It's like Ireland and Connemara.' 'And the cloud shadows - white to black, with the shadow movng across the hillside as you watch it. The edges so sharp. And the wind, always the wind. Leaning into the wind. It's an incredible spiritual place.' After a moment, Onley continued: 'And so it is here. We have the black light of the west coast. It's the opposite of the white light of California, which exposes everything. With our black light... well, you can see why mythical spirits come out of this landscape. The lakes are black and bottomless. But the richness of the landscape here -' Our world which is hidden to most of us, is accessible to him, with his little airplane. If you are beguiled by a well-told tale, I suggest his new book, Flying Colours, The Toni Onley Story (written by Toni Onley with Gregory Strong, Harbour Publishing, 2002). Unlike his previous picture albums, this is a chatty, confessional autobiography. It is packed with anecdote and personal insights about the art and people of our own current history. The Winchester Gallery, his home in Victoria, offers a visual complement to the biography with an eclectic retrospective of Onley's huge and varied career. Pride of place goes to 15 new collages. Each is a big sheet of paper swept over in acrylic paint, perfectly evoking Onley¹s trademark - changeable light. In the centre he has pasted up motifs he sliced out of Vogue Magazine. That's something new..., and then again, not so new. Our conversation began near something Onley made in 1958 from torn paintings. Across the mezzanine hung minimalist collages from 1964. I sensed a bracing breeze coming off a suite of Onley's little watercolours in the next room - images of Georgian Bay, Harrison Lake, the California Coast. They're lovely, but this artist doesn't respect limits? Onley¹s got more than one string to his bow. 'If I was a musician, why shouldn't I play two or three instruments?', he challenged. Onley is far more than a creator of easy-to-admire watercolour landscapes. In his book you'll read that Onley was in the early 1960's a world-class abstract painter, with a studio in London. His canvases from those days are seriously popular in current art auctions, and the best of them already belong to galleries: our National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, in fact. Onley isn't surprised people don't know this. 'It's understandable that they wouldn't know. They weren't alive when I was doing those things. But I'll keep on making stuff all the same. I've had more periods than Picasso.' The new collages look like landscape paintings with a surrealistic form at centre stage. Somewhat abstract, they maintain the illusion of a landscape space. 'I am anchored in a landscape experience,' he concurred. 'I strive for that. I try to get a light source, and that carries you into a landscape experience.' Collage presents Onley with even more freedom to create an imaginary space. 'It gives you a chance to change your mind,' he notes succinctly. There is no ultimate truth. Truth is a moving finger. __________________________________________________ Copyright © 2003 Robert Amos Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B. C.. He can be contacted by e-mail and you can view his paintings at www.robertamos.com