Love, Toni xox
Yukiko and Toni Onley 1980. Photo by Iwao Matsuo.
When iconic Canadian artist Toni Onley died in a plane crash on February 29, 2004, he left behind a legacy of paintings that documented his love of the British Columbia coast. A new exhibition that opens October 24 called Love, Toni xox shows another side of the man, offering an intimate glimpse into the romantic musings and private pain of one of Canada’s most beloved artists. Love, Toni xox is comprised of illustrated love letters written to photographer Yukiko Onley during the breakdown of their marriage in the early 1990s.
The more than two-dozen letters offer up ruminations on love and loss written in fine italic handwriting and are accompanied by depictions of landscapes and figures created in sumi drawing style on Japanese rice paper.
The original illustrated letters will be on display at the Onley Eastwood Gallery from October 24 to November 6. An accompanying limited edition book of the same name contains reproductions that are virtually indistinguishable from the original letters. The books are offered for sale at $3500 per copy, hand-bound and slip-cased in Aubergine Japanese bookcloth. The lengthy reproduction process for Love, Toni xox was meticulously overseen by publisher Robert Reid.
The Bulletin spoke to Yukiko Onley, a highly sought-after portrait photographer based in Vancouver, on the eve of the exhibition.
Yukiko Onley Interview
The new book and exhibition, Love, Toni xox, features letters from your former husband, the late Toni Onley. Could you put the letters in context, please, the circumstances behind them?
We had decided to live separately and I was going to move out of the house but it took a few weeks to do so. Actually, I was the one who wanted to leave the marriage, so whenever we talked we ended up fighting. So in order to express his feelings, he would leave letters for me. That was while I was still in the house and even after I moved out. For the first couple of years, he sent me letters like the ones in the book fairly regularly.
From the samples I’ve seen, they’re more than simply letters, they’re both poetic and visual at the same time. It’s clear that they were written by someone in pain, yet they almost feel as if they were created to be published.
My speculation, Toni being Toni, and being such a public person as he was, he somehow knew that everything that he wrote would eventually be made public. Whether it was conscious or unconscious at the time, I don’t know, but at the same time I don’t think he made up his feelings in order to create nice letters, I think they reflected his feelings at the time.
Did you ever discuss publishing them with Toni while he was alive?
We never discussed the letters. Actually, at the time I couldn’t read them because it was too emotional . . . I was too emotional and I wasn’t happy with the fact that I was leaving. It was not for lack of feeling, for caring for each other, that I was leaving. I was feeling very guilty and sad about it but I felt there was no other way, other than leaving, to feel good about myself. As long as I was married to Toni and living with him, I would always be living his life, not my life.
I’ve read that your relationship with Toni had an impact on your own art. How did it impact your photography?
I really feel that if I hadn’t met Toni I would have never started photography. I had tried to paint but that never went anywhere. Surrounded by Toni and his artist friends, I felt compelled to do something creative myself, but I didn’t know what until I discovered photography. By the time I discovered it, I already had my own aesthetic, my own way of seeing the world, so in a way it wasn’t such a hard thing to get into, and it came every naturally. Toni often said that what he painted was light, not shapes and colours, and that’s the way I feel too—I’m photographing light.
Did you see Toni as a mentor?
He supported me but didn’t tell me how to work—he respected my own approach to art.
Toni Onley is known primarily for his soft watercolour landscapes of the BC coast but these letters/paintings show a different side of him, as well as providing a glimpse into the man himself. Do you think they will alter people’s perception of him as an artist?
Of course he’s known for his watercolours, but he used to do large canvas collages and abstract painting in the sixties. Also, watercolours and sumi painting have similarities because they’re based on water, so it’s not such a big jump to using sumi ink.
Do you think he used this medium because you are Japanese?
It’s possible. He also used rice paper, which he didn’t normally do. Toni and I took calligraphy lessons together for a time, so he did do some sumi calligraphy and abstract drawings.
It’s been four years since Toni died in the plane crash. Looking back now, what memory of him do you keep with you?
Really as long as I live, Toni is very much a part of me. He is perhaps the person who had the biggest impact on my life and to me he lives within myself.
Did you come to place of comfort with each other after the divorce?
You know, I moved out and we legally divorced, but circumstances arose that ended up with me moving back into the house for the last five years of his life. We lived together quite comfortably as roommates. I’m sure to other people it looked quite strange, but we coexisted quite well. We were very close to each other. He was my teacher and my close friend.
Through this exhibition and book you are in some sense making yourself quite vulnerable, opening up a painful chapter in your life. Do you feel it is important that these letters be made public?
It is laying myself open to a degree, yes, but the letters are written so beautifully, they have such a value in themselves, that I felt strongly that they had to be seen. I can look at them objectively now, although I couldn’t at the time. I feel he wouldn’t mind that they are made public.