Flying Colours

A natural storyteller, Toni Onley seems to have travelled almost everywhere and had one of the most eventful lives of anyone I know, We met in 1986 when I was on assignment for Beautiful British Columbia magazine. We made two flights that year in his Lake Buccaneer flying boat: a rained out excursion to Harrison Lake in May and a more precarious flight to Garibaldi Provincial Park in October. While we circled Garibaldi Lake, Toni warned me over the headset, "The lake is glassy calm. I can't tell where to set down the plane." The news alarmed me. A few weeks earlier a seaplane had crashed under similar conditions. But he followed the line of trees along the shore and brought the float plane down on the water, a little roughly, but safely. Toni, fifty eight at the time, nearly twice my age, landed the aircraft, unpacked our supplies, then painted all afternoon, setting such an energetic pace that I felt hard pressed to keep up with him.

Watching him transform his paper and materials into a watercolour with shapes, images, then place fascinated me. His creative process seemed mysterious, alchemical and completely different from the process of writing and revision with which I was familiar. My interest in him took me through several magazine articles and a collaboration with Brian Ferstman on a documentary film proposal. In the meantime I wondered about the kind of form that would best suit a story like the one Toni had. Magazine pieces and short quotations couldn't do justice to his unique voice. On the other hand, a conventional biography would lose the sense of his character and the way he told his stories.

Then I read Spilsbury's Coast by Howard White and was struck by how well that book captured both Jim Spilsbury's personality and much of what I knew of the people living in small communities on the West Coast. There was another book as well, A.Y. Jackson's classic 1956 autobiography, A Painter's Country. Events in my own life took me to many of the places Toni described. I received a two year posting to Beijing under the auspices of the Canadian International Development Agency and St. Mary's University, Nova Scotia. Ultimately I joined the English Department at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo, which is where I teach today.

Paradoxically, the farther I moved from British Columbia, the more I appreciated the special character of the West Coast and the unusual people who live there. I also became very curious about the nature of art and artists as well. It astonished me that in an age of mass reproduction of texts and images through computerization and the globalization of manufacturing, artists like Toni Onley continued to create objects as singular and unique as a painting. I also wondered about the obstacles and sacrifices a successful artist faced over a long career.

Initiating this book in 1994 with Toni Onley gave me a way to explore these issues. I consulted the Special Collections branch of the University of British Columbia, where Toni has archived thirty-two voluminous boxes of papers and memorabilia, including personal correspondence, commercial records of his dealings with galleries and newspaper and magazine clippings. I interviewed fifty three people, among them members of Toni's immediate family, relatives on the Isle of Man and, of course, his artistic contemporaries.

To complete my research, I travelled to the Isle of Man, to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and to numerous locations across Canada. I also visited a number of West Coast artists in their studios, among them Jack Wise and Jack Shadbolt, both since deceased. But my primary source for the book remained Toni himself. Ultimately our project turned out to be far more difficult than either of us could have imagined. It consisted of hours of taping conversations, poring through personal papers and viewing documentaries, then additional research on the artists, places, and events he mentioned. I did follow up interviews with Toni and others, then attempted to render the wonderful stories I had collected into a linear narrative that I hope will carry not only the drama of the stories themselves but also the force of Toni's personality and his infectious sense of humour.

The first chapter of the book is largely based on an article on his ski plane crash that Toni wrote for Saturday Night magazine in February 1985. While reviewing the chapters covering his youth on the Isle of Man, he recalled other childhood memories and we added these as well. Chapter 18 is in part a rendering of Toni's travel journals that made up the book Onley's Arctic (Douglas & McIntyre, 1989). Much of Chapter 21 concerns a trip to India that Toni made with the late George Woodcock, documented in The Walls of India (Lester & Orpen Dermys, 1985), a book on which the two men collaborated. Chapter 22 is wholly based on Toni's unpublished diary of his 1988 visit to Japan. His second wife Gloria, now his close friend and the editor of Toni Onley's British Columbia: A Tribute (Raincoast Books, 1999), contributed many editorial changes to the emerging manuscript.

As books are collaborative acts, I must also credit the encouragement of my family, and friends, in particular my wife Kathi Mitsui, my sister Lorna Strong and my friend Ian Morton. Very helpful comments came my way from John Gribble, Paul Rossiter and other members of the Tokyo Creative Arts writing group. My work on Flying Colours: The Toni Onley Story has been an education in art. From a wreck on a mountain glacier, to encounters with characters like the garrulous F.H. Varley who always fell in love with his models to sojourns on the Isle of Man, in Mexico and the Arctic, it's been a wonderful journey. May it be so for you, the reader.


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