Friday, April 22, 2016

Onley's Arctic: Diaries and Paintings of the High Arctic

April 22, 2016

Toni Onley's Onley's Arctic: Diaries and Paintings of the High Arctic



Whiteout: Can you believe that I found this book at a library book sale? Yet it is not defaced by stickers and barcodes, so it must have been a donation. Autographed by the painter/writer.

I've always loved Toni Onley's paintings, especially those of this province of British Columbia. A friend has a lithograph of his Montague Bay of which I am most jealous. But this book, Onley's Arctic: Diaries and Paintings of the High Arctic (Douglas & McIntyre, 1989) is even more special. This book links poetry and painting for me. The words Onley uses to describe his personal experience of the Arctic landscapes, and to describe his own artistic process, are some of the best poetry I have read recently. Reading his words helps me understand what I am seeing when I look at his paintings. Reading his words--manifestation, terror, chaos, profundity, divine plan, sublime--helps me understand how this northern landscape pulls us into that experience of the sublime. A sensation the paintings of Lauren Harris also express, although the artists Onley cites include A.Y. Jackson and Kandinsky--Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and the poet, Elizabeth Bishop. Paintings and poetry, Onley says, "help them translate this landscape. " [p.137] Translation. Interpretation. Divining meaning, in what we see, and our place within it.

One purple passage which strikes me is about Onley's painting technique: I paint directly in response to what is before me, neither outlining nor drawing in pencil beforehand--that for me would be to paint by numbers, the finished painting decided long before completion. I prefer to leave all my options open and not know what the finished work will look like: to be in a position of constantly making decisions from stroke to stroke and even in mid-stroke; to keep the whole work moving and speaking to me until that point when the watercolour says, "I am finished." Painting in watercolour is like the course of life itself, full of disappointments, small successes, and, once in a while, the surprise of a totally unexpected breakthrough. Then it is like Zen, or sex; it's the greatest feeling on earth. I live for those rare times when it all comes together, and for a brief moment I can do no wrong--the watercolour painting itself and I only the observer, along for the ride. [p. 16]

In his answer to the question "What on earth are you painting?", about the implication that there is nothing there of interest, Onley explains that he is painting "the stillness and the exact gradations of radiant light."  [p.127]  (Perhaps this speaks to me because this is exactly what I try to capture with my camera.)

Inspired by whiteout days when contrast is reduced, when visibility is 0, when fellow travellers challenge him: "There is nothing to paint; all is white," Onley sites Kandinsky: "White, therefore, acts upon our psyche as a great, absolute silence . . . pregnant with possibilities. White has the appeal of nothingness that is before birth, of the world in the ice age." "Nothing is my forte," Onley proclaims. [p.144]

Born on the Isle of Man, an Officer of the Order of Canada, Toni Onley, age 76, died February 29, 2004, when the plane he describes in this book, the plane which he flew from Vancouver to Cape Dorset in 1975, flipped into the Fraser River near Maple Ridge while he was practising takeoffs and landings.

Touch and go.

jmb 2016/04/22

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