We are listening as artist Toni Onley sweeps his arm along the horizon. “Now this is worth painting!” he declares. My eyes follow his arm out past his fingertips and I fight back a feeling of vertigo as I see the land below. An afternoon wind has begun to blow up the side of the cliff towards us. It combines with the heat from the sun making the space between me and the land below almost tangible. If I had wings, I could spread them at this moment and I would be airborne. The mountains continue back as far as I can see, each range becoming a faint version of the one before it. The view is so large that it overwhelms me. Toni has plunked himself down in the grass. He’s unrolling his brushes and talking to all the grey heads, “I hate teaching these community workshops, but it is the only way they would let me have this Yukon residency. Your landscape is amazing…Who paints regularly with watercolors?”
My hand goes up, but mine is the only one. It would seem that I am the only one aware of who Toni is. His eyes quickly dismiss me as he replies, “Well okay then, let’s just have fun. Paint what you see.”
I look back at the landscape but it is too magnanimous for me. I don’t even know where to start. I look over at Toni; he is talking about boats and the coast as he wets his page. Pale greens and grays swirl around his brush effortlessly. He has captured the summer haze from forest fires and the space inside the valley.
Space? How can anyone paint space?
It is not what he has said with his brush that stands out, it is what he didn’t say. The same restraint shown in his painting technique shows up in his teaching. He sets his work down and says, “Now it’s your turn”, expertly steering the conversation to unrelated matters. Unable to to duplicate what I just saw, I looked towards the ground. There are some pine cones and needles in front of me so I focus there. Others are happily painting caricatured trees in dark green blotches, their little branches pointing upwards. Toni doesn’t seem to mind. He keeps on chatting and moves over to see what I am doing. As his shadow falls on my work and his sentence trails off, I feel myself begin to sweat.
What will he say? Does he object to me painting the miniscule instead of the magnanimous?
I hold my breath and wait for his wisdom but he merely grunts and returns to his chatter. For a moment I feel as insignificant as the ground cover I am painting. I can hear him continuing his chit-chat with the others. I feel disappointed.
Looking back on this experience I see it what I missed so long ago…Toni painted the isolation, the love of a moment share between a man and nature. He painted his relationship to the things that brought beauty and meaning into his life. He spoke with his brush and I must do the same.