Last Sunday afternoon at 1:34 my friend Toni Onley died. After a big bounce his 30-year-old Lake Buccaneer amphibian nosed into the river. He was alone. Maybe it was a heart attack. Maybe he hit a stick. There’ll be an inquest.
Toni flew a lot and he flew everywhere — the far North, Mexico, all over Canada and the USA. He landed on desert strips, high mountain lakes and remote inlets. His plane was a magic carpet to the stuff he loved to paint. He’d taxi up on a beach, pop the hatch and pull out his home-built box. It was a knee-topper that held 50 quarter-sheets. He taped down his generally smooth Velin Arches or David Cox, slid out his plain plastic palette, squeezed his beloved Winsor and Newton’s, dipped the local water, salt or fresh, and painted. Toni worked quickly, deliberately — often with the fattest of oriental goat-hairs. He liked large gradations, soft and blended greens and grays. He was a master of understatement, the evocative mist, the mystery of sea, sky and distant lands.
“I’d rather go out in a decent crackup than in a hospital,” he told me last week. Toni was philosophical about just about everything. He liked to talk about the times he’d flown through rainbows. He sometimes flew in borderline weather — it gave him a thrill and set his dreams in motion. For him flying was ultimate freedom, the chosen way a man might experience the gift of our globe. As practically everyone who has phoned has said: “He died doing what he loved.”
One summer afternoon a few years ago Toni and I were dragging lines from a small boat. The salmon were not exactly brilliant that day — we had come to that languid state where fishermen don’t bother to say much to each other. “I’d rather be painting,” he grumbled. “At least with painting you have something to show.” We were drifting by a high shore with green pillows of moss and grey lichens waving at us from ancient trees. “We could be over there and we could be bloody happy,” he said. That was about it with him. When he finally flew out of our lives Toni was either going painting, coming back from painting, or wishing he were painting.
PS: “I drop in from the sky disturbing the silence only momentarily, then leaving the ancient land once more to converse with the sky. It’s my home and all I need.” (Toni Onley)
Esoterica: Once on a northern shore I caught Toni quietly and ceremoniously burying one of his tired Chinese brushes. “Back to the earth from which you came,” he said. While his life was often filled with drama, his watercolour methodology was ritualistic. Last week, as for the past few years, his palette had narrowed to Winsor Green and Blue, Raw and Burnt Umber, Raw and Burnt Sienna, Cadmiums Yellow and Red, Yellow Ochre, French Ultra, Alizarin Crimson, Sepia and Lamp Black.
Too awesome to represent
Patty Knott, Pennsylvania, USA
I too am a pilot. Flying has informed my art making as well as my teaching. Your thoughts on Toni are how many of us pilots feel. I am a responsible pilot and never take foolish risks, but yes, there is some thought of going down in a plane rather than lingering in a debilitating condition. Know that Toni was high when he fell from the sky. Know that Toni crashed with a pleasure few know. There is no image to forward that will ever express how we pilots feel when we touch the sky. It’s an image I can’t quite make. I think it may be because being part of the sky and the heavens may be just too awesome to represent.
Something for his pocket
Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA
Toni’s passing is notice to all the rest of us to do what we love. What a great focus he had; what a privilege to know such a person. My Grandfather had been a baker all his life; he was known to customers and friends as “the cookie man.” When he passed, a young fellow who’d worked with him brought a small plastic bag of cookies and deposited them in the pocket of Granddad’s suit — right there in the casket! I was the only one who saw him do it, and he put his finger to his lips as if to silence me. He wiped a tear from his eye, and left the building, not to be seen again. It is one of those memories that you take with you. You might get a paintbrush that Toni would admire and put it in before they close the lid.
Bad takes longer
Ted Lederer, Vancouver, BC, Canada
One day Toni had settled himself into one of the cozy chairs at the gallery and we were chewing the fat. A number of his works were on display and a young man was looking at his art. When I spoke with this fellow it was clear that he was unaccustomed to the price of fine art. I asked the young man if he would like to meet the artist and he said yes. Very soon after introducing him the fellow asked Toni how long it took him to do one of his paintings. Toni responded, “The good ones go rather quickly, but the bad ones can take a long time.”
Jim Rowe, Lakefield, Ontario, Canada
Toni strongly influenced the way I mix colours. I pretty well copied his palette and his optical opposite colour combinations to gain control over my paintings. But this isn’t his first plane crash, he almost killed himself and a friend landing on a glacier about 20 years ago. They ended up suspended in mid air over a crack in the ice supported only by the wings of his brand new plane. I wonder, how many crashes has he had?
(RG note) Toni was a spiritual kind of guy as well as a self-admitted publicity hound. “He was his own best agent,” said our local newspaper. Some weeks after he crashed his ski-equipped Wilga on a glacier — and just about died of exposure, he told me with a wry smile: “Some artists will do anything to get noticed.” Toni has now made the big career move.
Advice from Toni
Bryan Dunleavy, Southampton, UK
I met Toni at an Emma Lake Workshop in Saskatchewan. Of course, he landed on the lake in his floatplane, which excited a great deal of interest. During the workshop he stood behind me for a few minutes while I industriously made more marks and tried to imbue my painting with meaning by applying more paint to the panel. He then offered me some advice: “You’re trying to make your painting too complicated. Paintings get complicated all by themselves.” He carried a number 12 sable and a small box of watercolours with a limited palette. With these modest tools he created luminous and expressive landscapes.
Susan Easton Burns, Atlanta, GA, USA
When we were 10 or 11, my cousin Michael took me down the road to ride ponies. For only 25 cents you could ride your pony around a big oval track. I went slowly because I wanted the ride to last forever. Michael tore around in less than 2 minutes, screaming and yahooing the whole way. In the next few years, Michael developed a brain tumor and he died. I always think of Michael when I hear that saying about the candle that burns brightest, burns the shortest. His life was short, but he lived fast and full. He taught us a thing or two about living. Toni did also.
An artist’s life
Brad Greek, Florida, USA
Toni knew what living life was all about. He was not caught in a rut. I can only imagine what tranquil scenes he must have witnessed through the windshield of his planes — and then able to capture that moment in time with a painting — to me that’s what en plein air painting should be about. Nature finding you and calling you in.
Death and love
Aleta Pippin, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Unlike Toni, many never experience a life of doing what they love, and that is their choice. Of course the whole death thing brings up a lot of issues for each of us. My hope is that I will continue to enjoy the lovely sunsets, children playing, flowers blooming, and more through the eyes of those who are still interacting on the physical plane; while experiencing the feeling of a love so magnificent that words cannot describe it.
Piloted to his paintings
Barbara Loyd, Austin, TX, USA
If you have ever witnessed the death of loved ones in a hospital, plugged into machines, with tubes running into and out of their bodies you know Toni’s death was a blessing. One of my grandmothers died at 96, while making a quilt. The other one died in her kitchen (she was a gourmet cook) shortly after she had been outside feeding her chickens. I hope my time comes when I am painting, reading about artists, or on my way to a workshop. Thanks for including Toni’s work; it is serenely beautiful. Knowing he piloted himself into the places he painted makes them even more special.
Linda K , Nanaimo, BC, Canada
We have had a Toni Onley hanging on our walls since the ’80s, Deception Peak, Garibaldi Park 1985. We have always called this our “talking picture” because, for some reason, due to the changing humidity of the different seasons the metal frame that surrounds it expands and contracts and makes some sort of little noise sometimes. I have had company visiting who have heard it and always ask where that sound is coming from. I would respond “it’s just the wind blowing over the Peaks!” I could have had it re-framed I suppose but I always liked how that painting ‘spoke’ to us.
Places not well travelled
Anne Alain, Ottawa, ON, Canada
Toni’s name was given to me as part of an exercise by Henry Vyfinckle, our instructor at a watercolour workshop. He told me I should get to know about Toni, which I did. Toni was an extremely talented and single-minded painter. I found his work so unique and satisfying, it brought me particularly to areas of Canada that I will never visit, but still can feel and see their beauty through his work.
Toni Onley’s books
Keena Friedrichschmeier Payne
When we left British Columbia my husband bought me Toni’s British Columbia: A Tribute. His grey, mysterious and “wet” paintings evoke the spirit of the coastal rainforest.
(RG note) Toni’s other books include: Toni Onley, A Silent Thunder by Roger Boulet, Walls of India by George Woodcock, Voyage en Artique with Claude Peloquin, and Flying Colours, the Toni Onley Story (Autobiography)
A fine teacher
Toni was conducting a workshop and my house was the base camp. He was a fine teacher — at once introducing the class to a very limited palette and no sweat on brushes as one will do. I had never seen this kind of simplicity as I always felt the more colour you have on your palette the better the work. Toni just sat there and painted — void of easel, sporting his Manx cat (Isle of Man emblem) on his hat and smoking his traditional pipe. His message was “Let’s find visual excitement in what nature has to offer.”
Film in the works
Toni was flamboyant to the end, I’m sure he will become a legend, much like Tom Thomson. A film on him is in the works. The filmmaker will have the honour of producing a lasting epitaph. There are scenes of Toni flying, but now they take on a whole new meaning. We’ll miss his easy-going conversation and fearless fighting of the dogma in art.
Another beautiful flight
Kate Schuerch, Hawaii, USA
My father also loved flying — gliders and sailplanes being his windows to the sky. He died when the radically designed experimental sailplane, designed by one of his students, which he was test-piloting, malfunctioned. In the devastating sorrow that wracked my family, we all agreed that he died exactly as he would have wanted, in a quick and final landing from another beautiful flight.
What a ride!
I’m sorry for the loss of your friend and the loss of a fellow artist. He really had a zest for life. A dear friend just sent this to me, I don’t know the origin, but it seemed somehow fitting: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming–“Wow! What a ride”!
(RG note) Thank you to all who wrote to offer condolences. That quote came from Jeanne Rhea and was cited prophetically in a recent clickback. We haven’t found out who said it yet, but we will. Thanks also to those who chose to write a tribute to our friendship. They are so welcome. Some were very elegant and all will be treasured. Below is one of them:
Flying through rainbows
Sandy Robertson, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
I can imagine the love and pain it took you to write about Toni and share it with us. I was so taken by your beautifully penned words on the life and death of your friend. You reached out and touched so many with his story. I can’t get the phrase “flying through rainbows” from my mind. I love this man I never met and his art is both invigorating and peaceful. Burying the paint-brushes on the beach was a piercingly beautiful image (I can never part with any of my artists tools, and often include them in my mosaic art, but burying is so symbolic – and I will do this and say a little prayer for Toni). And being a fisherwoman I know how you and he felt about the end-of-the-day fishing mood! Thank you for making me stop in my busy day to reflect on your words and long for being in a boat again on the beautiful Great Barrier Reef, for when the fish are lucky and not biting, I am constantly encapsulated in the blues of the world.
I was so moved by your letter. I sent the link to an artist friend in Sydney and she was reading it at the same time. We both pay our respects to a wonderful artist who no doubt is having a whale of a time painting in eternal bliss. Robert, you have given the world so much in your unselfish thoughts, website, humour, wit and art… and so much more.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high un-trespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
This poem was written by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., and submitted by Donald F Morgan