Toni (Norman) Onley

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Toni (Norman) Onley

1928 - 2004

Toni Onley produced abstract works and landscape paintings, but he is best known for his moody, Zen-like watercolours of British Columbia scenes.

Onley was born on the Isle of Man in England, and came to Canada in 1948, settling first in Ontario, where he studied at the Doon School of Fine Art in 1951 under Carl Schaefer. In his early work he was influenced by British painters John Cotman and Peter DeWint. He moved to Penticton, British Columbia, in 1955, where he taught classes for children and adults. In 1957 Onley won a scholarship to attend the Institute Allende in Mexico. During his time there he was influenced by American Abstract Expressionism, and experimented with abstract painting. He remained in Mexico for three years. In 1958, to raise money to stay in Mexico, he brought a group of paintings to Vancouver and was immediately offered an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery and at the New Design Gallery, the only gallery in the city that handled contemporary Canadian art.

Back in Canada in 1960, Onley settled in Vancouver, initially painting abstract collages. He began to build a reputation as a leading contemporary painter, with works such as the stunning Polar Series of canvases from 1961. However, he returned to painting the landscape in the mid-1960s, and he had a great regard for the beauty of the mist and cloud-enshrouded West Coast. In 1966, Onley learned to fly, and he bought his first plane in 1968. This resulted in a life-long pattern of flying to remote locations on the West Coast to paint watercolours, using a paintbox that he built himself. He also flew across Canada in his Champion Sky-Trac plane. Onley developed a minimal style of landscape painting - initially trained in the British watercolour tradition, his work evolved to fuse Eastern and Western aesthetics.

He studied Shodo, the art of Japanese calligraphy, and began to paint with Japanese brushes. This resulted in a reductive Zen approach to the landscape. In 1982, he bought a ski plane, which enabled him to land on mountain glaciers to paint. He also produced a large body of work in printmaking – starting with etchings in 1965, then silkscreens in 1968.

Beginning in 1967, Onley taught in the Studio Arts Program at the University of British Columbia, until he left in 1975 to concentrate on his painting. He became known for his astute business dealings - he had many successful exhibitions, and in 1980 he brokered a million dollar sale of his inventory to a mystery buyer. In 1983, he publicly took on Revenue Canada over a tax ruling he felt was unfair to artists, dramatically threatening to burn a large portion of his prints, which ultimately resulted in an acceptable accommodation with the tax department.

Onley traveled to the Arctic, Japan, China, Europe, New Zealand and Egypt. He was involved in numerous book projects – Toni Onley: A Silent Thunder, Flying Colours: The Toni Onley Story, Onley’s Arctic, Toni Onley’s British Columbia: A Tribute and The Walls of India, a collaboration with writer George Woodcock.

In 1978, Onley was given a retrospective at the Art Gallery of Vancouver. He received the Officer of the Order of Canada in 1999. His work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the US Library of Congress, the Vancouver Art Gallery, Edmonton Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and many others.