Tony Aish – Messenger from the Time of Plague

POV@MACC gallery October – November 2020

The Stream of Consciousness Drawings of Tony Aish

Diana Smith article, Metchosin Muse, October 2020

There are some fascinating drawings on display in the Hallway Gallery of the old elementary school until the end of October. The drawings and one painting are the work of long time local resident Tony Aish. They are dense with narrative detail as is Tony, I discovered, when I interviewed him for this article. Come to think of it, his house (the flutes and recorders laid out like medical instruments on the coffee table, Sheba, the ball python languishing in her tank, the ceiling of one room coated thick with red plastic leaves, the cowboy boots lined up under the stove), his garden and his bejewelled and tattooed body also scream ‘story.’

The series of drawings is called Messenger from the Time of Plague. Though totally contemporary they were made between the 1970s and early 2000s. It sounds like drawing came easily to Tony, which may explain why he ended up as an art (and English) teacher in Victoria high schools for many years.

He fell in love with a 0.05 mm technical pen in the 70s and so began the romance. The twenty-one drawings are thick with detail, some taking up to 100 hours of labour. Tony says he doesn’t have a preconceived notion of what he will draw. It’s like a quiet meditation, often starting with a figure. Though he has no idea where they are going, the drawings do have meaning. In his artist statement he says, in part,

‘These oddities are the result of my growing apprehension of the world and its populace. Unfortunately, I have not altered my views as I do not see us doing very well on a number of fronts. Climate is obviously one of them.’

There is recurring imagery throughout the work: daggers, arrows (often embedded in bodies), jesters, serpents, human bones, crucified figures, and snarling wolves. There is, for the most part, a sparing use of colour which adds to the strength of the work. The text within the drawings is either his own or quotes such as the one from The World is a Beautiful Place, a song by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. (Read it and weep).

There are many figures, mostly male, in the artwork. I ask if he is depicted in any of them. Not directly it seems, although in the course of the work one figure suddenly appears. This is Mr. Sag. (Tony was born on December 12, 1938, under the sign of Sagittarius.) The figure wears a big brimmed hat, is blindfolded, slightly mythical, often with a bow and arrow, wearing tights (but not feminine, Tony emphasizes). Tony suggests Mr. Sag serves as ‘a guardian of my imagination.’ I think this is an important point. Just because a person depicts violence and horror does not mean they support it. The scenes Tony draws from his imagination are based on what he perceives of the real world but as he says, ‘I’m not part of this world’.

‘Why did the series end?’ I ask. It seems Tony had said all that he needed to say so he stopped. In what turned out to be the last of the series, Tony does see himself inserted, dead, in a shroud. Although I’m happy to report he looked pretty alive when last seen, rolling up his sleeve to show a figure tattooed on his upper arm which looked a lot like Mr. Sag.

Tony has a dim view of people as ‘monkeys with guns’ and as much as he might think we are doomed he also has ‘a big dream.’ Men historically were hunters and women gatherers. His dream is that it is time for the gatherers to take over and he sees optimistic signs that this is beginning to happen as he notes more female leaders at various levels and places around the world.

Tony says the artwork is dark and negative, but he is pointing out things that need to be pointed out. Some people recoil before artwork that is hard. As Tony says, “The series is not a set of pretty pictures, but an important one and they should disturb you.” So let us be disturbed, even in Metchosin. You don’t have to go far. You can view Messenger from the Time of Plague at the Metchosin Arts & Cultural Centre building (old elementary school) at various times but reliably Saturday to Sunday, 11:00 am–4:00 pm.