Toni Onley’s life could be a prime time movie
Landscape artists come to Whistler for Arts Festival
By Paul Andrew
Although Vancouver landscape artist Toni Onley has made a fortune selling his water-colour canvasses, the man doesn’t own a computer.
He does, however, own an $8 million mansion near the University of British Columbia and keeps a Rolls Royce in the garage for sunny day cruising.
And Onley is the first person to tell you that he is best remembered by other Canadian artists and people in the art business for making a lot of money selling his paintings. In 1980, Onley made his first million by selling everything in his studio. That was when he was 50 years old. Now 70, Onley says he has been painting for 64 years. He will be in Whistler Friday, June 18, to give a keynote address to interested artists and art lovers to kick off the Whistler Arts Experience Festival, which runs June 18-20.
"Money is actually a by-product of good work," Onley said from his Vancouver digs last week. "Some people will say; ‘this is the year I’m going to make a million.’ But you can’t think about it that way because you end up losing it the next year. I’m actually a spiritual person. The money just comes after you achieve good work, and I’ve achieved that."
Onley has a history of connecting with the Whistler landscapes and much of the Coastal Mountain Range’s glaciers and icecaps. At one time, he did most of his painting via a ski-plane he owned. He would fly to the top of a glacier from an airplane hangar near Delta and be back in time for dinner. That is, until 1983, when a take-off from the Cheakamus Glacier went wrong and almost cost him his life. At 8,000 feet above sea level, Onley became stuck in a 200-foot crevasse.
"I was with John Reeves, a Toronto photographer who had been commissioned to do a photo essay on me — the Flying Artist, or some such title. So we flew up the highest glacier in the Whistler area... to do some painting. I would like to say that it was a magnificent bit of flying," Onley says about skipping one crevasse and ending up wedged in another. "But the truth is I had lost control."
Onley and Reeves were on the glacier 18 hours before being rescued by helicopter the next morning. The plane was trashed and subsequently limited Onley’s high alpine landscape painting.
But the legend of Toni Onley lives on and can be seen, he says, in many of the Whistler properties and chalets. Reproductions of two paintings, one of Whistler Mountain and the other of Blackcomb, hang in the hallways of many of Whistler’s tourist accommodations.
"That was 10 years ago. There hasn’t been any available for about two years now. I sold a lot of paintings in the ’80s and I made about half-a-million dollars a year. I guess nowadays, you will find my paintings at auctions... places like Sotheby’s. But in 1990/91, it seemed the first thing one could do without was a painting, because of the recession I suppose. But that’s changing now."
Not that Onley is hard-up for cash. His eight-floor mansion in Vancouver is admired by magazines and architectural aficionados looking for a unique design. In addition to the North American magazines clamouring for a photo-spread, a Japanese crew recently came to Vancouver specifically to photograph the house.
He’s also bought another plane, to replace the old ski-plane he left on the Cheakamus Glacier 16 years ago.
"It’s the only way to get around in B.C. I love to go to the Alpine Lakes and paint landscapes in water colour."
Onley says he’s not sure what he will talk about during his visit to Whistler, but the theme of Putting Art Back Into Your Life might give him a start. Certainly, at 70 years old and some 40 years of professional painting behind him, the mixture of art and life should be an easy topic for Onley.