Yukiko Onley Exhibits her Love Letters From Toni

Highly recommended: An exhibit of heartbreakingly beautiful love letters the late Toni Onley wrote his wife, the celebrated portrait photographer Yukiko Onley. This intimate look at love’s loss was painted and written with painful clarity by the artist on rice paper. The opening begins at 6 PM this Friday night at the gallery which is located at 2075 Alberta Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues.

Reproduced by eighty-one-year-old print master Robert Reid, the limited edition book is a work of art in its own right.

Toni Onley died at 75 in a plane crash February 29, 2004, twelve years after he and Yukiko legally ended their marriage. Her desire to forge an identity separate from his led to their separation, she said, but their friendship never died. In the period before his death, they lived together “quite well” as roommates. They both had other romantic relationships, but thrived as companions.

“Toni cared deeply for me,” she said. “And I cared deeply for him. That never changed.”

It was only after his death that Onley turned to the letters. “It was too painful for me to read them at the time he wrote them,” she said. “He would leave them for me on my desk and I would put them away.” She showed the letters to the former director of the art gallery of greater Victoria who had been friends with the Onleys. He suggested Yukiko exhibit the letters. She contacted a number of galleries and found them to be scheduled for years in advance.

A fortuitous meeting signaled a new path for the photographer. A small gallery at Ambleside in West Vancouver had organized “an idea party” for artists grappling with projects that had gotten stuck, Onley said. “It was for people who didn’t know how to get beyond where they were. Anybody there could give a sort of introduction to somebody they might know who could help.”

Jan Alexander, a friend of Reid, happened to be there and said Onley and the bookmaker must meet. The introduction laid the foundation for the collaboration between Onley and Reid. Reid, who published books for McGill Press and later was a book packager in New York City with Simon and Schuster, McMillans, and Prentice Hall, said he saw the letters as a “wonderful challenge.” He had a passion for doing facsimiles of old works. “Just for the fun of it, I went out and bought some Japanese paper and tried running it through Jan’s digital printer, because there was no other way to reproduce them. They’re all written on Japanese paper and drawn on with Sumi ink. It’s a Japanese style of drawing. And it’s impossible to reproduce them by the usual printing methods. The treasure of the book is that the letters are actually reproduced in such facsimile that you can hardly tell the difference, and all on handmade paper.”

The printing presented a unique problem. “We were merrily printing away, only to find that the lint off the paper was getting into the very expensive machine and it stopped working. Ås a result, we were only able to produce 19 copies of the letters. It’s a very limited edition for a real reason,” Reid said.

The University of British Columbia library bought a copy and three others have sold to collectors. Fifteen will be on sale at the Onley Eastwood Gallery.

“This is one of the most exotic books I’ve ever seen,” Reid said. “It is form and function perfectly suited.”

Yukiko and Toni Onley met shortly after Yukiko came to Canada to as a nanny. “We met through the people I was babysitting for,” Onley said. “They had a friend, Susanna, who lived in a houseboat at Coal Harbour and Toni happened to have a houseboat right next to hers. When we were visiting her she said, 'Oh, I should introduce you to my friend who lives in the next houseboat because he just split up with his girlfriend.' My English was kind of minimal and I wasn’t sure what they were talking about. He was twenty-one years older than me and I stayed with him 15 years.”

When she met him, he was known among collectors and museums, but not a household name. “Then he became a household name because a number of things happened and everybody recognized him on the street and he got all sorts of attention and he just loved it,” she said. “I came from this very traditional background where a woman’s role was quite defined to support husband. So, that’s what I tried to do at the beginning, but gradually I realized I was not satisfied. Something was missing. I was very introverted and shy because I didn’t speak good English. Toni was very expressive and funny and charming, so naturally people paid attention."

She was inspired to become an artist herself after years of being surrounded by his friends. “Living with him and surrounded by his artist friends, almost everybody he knew were artists or creative people and I felt strange because I wasn’t. I tried to paint for a couple of years, but I never felt I was good enough. I was sort of searching for the medium that would suit me and it took quite a long time.”

The turning point came on a trip to the Ottawa National Gallery bookshop. “ I saw the book of Henri Cartier Bresson and when I saw it I knew I wanted to take photographs like him. It was as simple as that. Then I decided to take a photography course. I took a night course at the Vancouver School Board once a week. That was the late eighties. He always supported me doing that kind of thing.

“He was a very good person. He had a good heart. I felt he was the closest person in my life, more than my family,” Onley said.

Contact Yukiko Onley for more information.

Photo at top of Robert Reid (left) and Yukiko Onley (right), assembling the book

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