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Dearest Yukiko, I am in a nightmare from which I cannot awake. ... Toni Onley wrote this in October, 1991, in the weeks after his third wife, Yukiko Onley, left him. It was just one of a series of heart-wrenching pleas the Vancouver-based artist sent to her, beautifully scripted in handwritten, black ink on Japanese paper - and illustrated with the watercolours for which he was renowned.

Too painful for his estranged wife to read at the time, the letters remained tucked away until very recently, when Yukiko Onley was persuaded to present them publicly by publisher Robert Reid, now 81, and a celebrated print master. The result is an exhibition of the original letters and a limited-edition book, its 19 copies priced at $3,500 each - Love, Toni xox.

Reid says he was instantly captivated by the letters. "Toni wrote in this beautiful italic hand - you could tell that even in his pain, there was part of him that enjoyed the process of creating these letters."

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The challenge was how to reproduce them: " I didn't want to reprint them on ordinary book paper," Reid explains. "I wanted to make them into a work of art themselves - otherwise, I think it would have felt somewhat voyeuristic."

He borrowed a friend's "very expensive" photocopier/printer and ran some Japanese paper through it. "It worked," he laughs. "Until the lint of the paper clogged up the works of the machine - and the edition is truly limited because we simply couldn't print any more."

While it is hardly uncommon for the private letters of public people to be published posthumously - Onley died, at the age of 75, when his private light aircraft crashed in 2004 - there is an unusual significance to the release of these missives. Their recipient, Yukiko, says she feels she has been largely written out of the late artist's life, despite having shared it for about 20 years, first as his wife and later, long after their divorce, for the five years before his death, as a platonic roommate. According to the biography on his official website, Onley's first wife, Mary, died in the 1950s, and he married his second wife, Gloria, in 1961. But although he met and was living with Yukiko by 1976 (he left Gloria for her), there is no mention of their relationship, nor does Yukiko have any involvement in the Toni Onley Archives or interest in the estate.

"He had children in his previous marriages, so I really have no rights as part of the family," Yukiko Onley, 58, an accomplished portrait photographer, explains in an interview at her Vancouver studio, the Onley Eastwood Gallery. "Gloria Onley stepped in after Toni passed away. "

Gloria, along with her son, James, and Toni's daughter, Lynn, from the artist's first marriage, controls the archives and estate. "I'm not considered part of Toni's legacy," Yukiko adds. She speculates that there was concern that she would make a claim on the estate (one of Onley's paintings sold for more than $36,000 this year). "I could have tried, but I thought it would have been too ugly."

"She wasn't entitled to anything," Gloria Onley counters. "She was staying in his house as a guest at the time of his death."

The publication of his letters to Yukiko is not something the family is pleased about, she adds. "The idea of Toni's anguish over his relationship with Yukiko being published reminds us how unhappy he was at the time."

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She is also concerned about the handing over of copyright for the letters by the previous executor of the Onley estate last year. "It is quite a shock to discover that, three days before he resigned, the executor simply gave copyright away."

Yukiko is not surprised that Gloria is upset. Though the ongoing friction between them was painful in the immediate aftermath of the artist's untimely death, Yukiko says she has chosen to put it behind her. Indeed, part of the point of this book and the exhibition (which will also be on display in Penticton, B.C., next year) is finally to move on with her own life. "I just don't want to keep presenting myself as the ex-wife of Toni Onley," she shrugs. "This will be the last thing I do."

It has taken a long time to get to this point: Yukiko - who came to Canada to work as a nanny - met Onley within a couple of weeks of immigrating to Vancouver from Japan in 1976 and moved into his houseboat almost immediately. In the opening pages of the book, there's a photograph of them together. Onley sits at a desk, arms stretched out, looking directly into the camera's lens. Yukiko stands sideways, with her back leaning into Onley. She is half in shadow, looking away into space. Her presence is as slight as his is strong.

"Yes, the photograph shows that he was in charge," she nods. "I was so dependent on him, and at the beginning I didn't think about it too much. I needed someone I could trust and rely on, and it was only later that I realized the person that he was." She left him, she says, to try to salvage a life that had become completely subsumed into another's.

As we look through the book of letters, it is clear Yukiko still finds them difficult to contemplate. "Even now, when I read them, I feel really bad about [having left him]" she admits, tearing up. "It is still quite overwhelming."

Though Onley told people that she had left him for a younger man, she says she was simply desperate to get away and took the only opportunity she could find. The artist's torment at her departure is palpable in the pages of the book: Black skies feature prominently, sometimes draped over quotes from Emily Dickinson or William Blake, other times over his own words - first sad, then bitter and, finally, resigned.

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"I believe betrayal to be the greatest of all evil ... I have to distance myself from this evil and not see you," states one early entry.

But fast-forward to January, 1996, and the tone has mellowed to the point of domestic banality: "Welcome home," he writes. "I made a special honey oatmeal loaf for your homecoming."

In between, the trajectory of emotions will be familiar to many. 'It's universal, I think," Yukiko notes.

Reid says he has noticed that men and women react differently to the book: "Women immediately start reading the letters, while men turn the pages to look at the pictures.

"And what this book does," he adds, "is show a man who really loved a woman - and we don't see evidence of that so much these days."

Originally, Reid had met with Yukiko to discuss the possibility of doing a book of her photography. "But I happened to show him these letters and he got much more excited about them," she recalls, shaking her head at the irony. Though some have questioned her decision to display them, she feels quite certain her ex-husband would have approved. "I knew Toni well," she says. "And one of the problems we had was that he lived a very public life - to him, there was not much difference between what was private and what was public.

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"I think," she says, managing a smile, "that subconsciously he knew that everything he wrote would one day be public."

Love, Toni xox - Illustrated love letters by Toni Onley closes tomorrow at the Onley Eastwood Gallery, 2075 Alberta St., Vancouver (604-739-0429).

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