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Toni Onley

April 07th, 2008

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
the Arctic?”

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
Northern development?

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."

Essay Date: 1990

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