Onni Nordman: Risking Failure For ‘The Good Stuff’

Cape Breton artist Onni Nordman is enjoying a growing reputation these days. His work is already popular in Nova Scotia, where it often appears in gallery shows and events like last month’s Lumière. And now Nordman is becoming known in Europe, where he recently had exhibitions in Munich and Helsinki.

Muise and Nordman in Süddeutsche Zeitung (South German Daily), May 2015

Muise and Nordman in Süddeutsche Zeitung (South German Daily), May 2015

During the show in Munich, Nordman and Paula Muise, his wife and business agent, were featured in a nearly full-page article in a German national newspaper. His work is selling well, and he intends to increase his presence internationally. Nordman has taken on a prominent agent in Finland for the European art market and is planning future appearances there.

Above all, he is producing more and more exciting art, and a recent series of paintings, Ten Bulls, is a wonderful example of what I love most about Nordman’s work. These paintings have an immediate appeal with their clean lines, bright colors and playful narrative. They are inventive, mischievous and sometimes very funny. In Ten Bulls, East meets the Western. Nordman’s sequence takes its title from a work with roots in 12th century China and medieval Japan, a set of illustrations and accompanying poems in the Zen Buddhist tradition, which illustrate the perilous journey a seeker after truth must make to reach true wisdom. Nordman combines this allegory with line drawings from a children’s book based on the 1960s television western Bonanza. The search for enlightenment becomes the story of cowboy Hoss Cartwright pursuing a wild cat.


Zen Cowboy

In Perceiving the Bull, an outstanding painting from the series, Hoss, seated on his horse at right, is looking over his shoulder at us, his neck stretching across the canvas, blue bandana fluttering, till his massive head takes over the left half of the canvas. Thick clouds of flies collect behind him; the pursued cat’s image forms a revolving circle of faces before him. It’s a large, gorgeous painting, busy and calm, relaxing and energizing, filled and empty. It’s child-like and subtly crafted. Like so much of Nordman’s work, the painting is just a joyful pleasure to look at.


Perceiving the Bull, Onni Nordman, Oil on Canvas, 2014

Perceiving the Bull, Onni Nordman, oil on canvas, 2014


Artists like Nordman are generous souls and will provide delight to any viewer who, standing before the work, will just – Zen-like – be quiet, and calmly, patiently look. Though the paintings can be thought-provoking, I’m content to enjoy the play of the narrative element and experience the emotions works like Ten Bulls provoke in me. However, for the curious and the more sophisticated, Nordman is happy to discuss his technique, his philosophy of art and where his work fits within the context of art history.


Sauna: Divine Comedy

One place you might go to learn from Nordman is filmmaker Madeline Yakimchuk and team’s excellent video SAUNA Divine Comedy. Just under five minutes, it’s an absorbing and visually engaging introduction to the artist’s work and creative process. In this film, we’re in the studio with Nordman among his eye-catching paintings as he discusses his art and his working methods:

I’m working towards that part of the painting where you’ll have to make a rather large structural gamble, a risk that could ruin the whole thing. But if it succeeds, it could take the painting to a condition beyond what you could have planned. If you fail to take the gamble, the painting will fail to achieve its own end.

As we gain valuable insights into the creative process, we view Nordman at work, see some of his technique and witness something of the gamble his methods involve.


Slideshow — Works from Sauna: Divine Comedy, Onni Nordman


I met up with Nordman and Paula Muise at the Pier Deli, now on Bentinck St in the Club 55 building. Over my fishcakes and their cabbage rolls (vegetarian for Muise), we discussed art, creativity, and commercial realities. I start by telling Nordman I was fascinated by SAUNA Divine Comedy, especially when we hear his comments on the creative process while viewing his highly precarious – sometimes almost reckless — working methods. All artists have to find the courage to take large risks, I go on, but the dangers at the best of times are real enough. He seems to push risk to the limit. “Failure is necessary. If you don’t fail, you’re not doing something organic. I’m sitting on a mountain of failures,” Nordman says, almost impatiently, before adding, “But the good stuff I’m willing to stand with.”

Nordman’s Sauna, the on-going project featured in SAUNA Divine Comedy, is definitely “the good stuff.” He brought back just one idea from his time in Europe, he says, “But one good idea is a mine of ore you can work for years.” The inspiration for Sauna has two sources. The first, Dante’s Divine Comedy, describing the poet’s travels through the nine circles of hell and journey to paradise. The second, Nordman’s visit to Finland, where he experienced the country’s famous sauna tradition. “Everybody goes to the sauna, people go every night,” Nordman says. “There are public saunas, but most people have their own.” He compares the sauna experience to the Polar Bear New Year Swim in South Bar, which he participates in every year: “You don’t know at first if you’re freezing or being boiled.”

4 A.M., Onni Nordmann, Oil on Canvas, 2013

4 A.M., Onni Nordmann, 0il on canvas, 2013


4 A.M.

The idea of plunging in, sticking it out and finishing the journey seems to be a theme in Nordman’s art and life, whether it’s swimming in the Atlantic in January, visiting saunas in Finland, or creating adventurous paintings in his South Bar studio. He will spend an enormous amount of time on a painting, layering the colors and letting them dry, doing painstaking detail work, and finally, after weeks of labor, using a roller brush to slap on, say, a revolving circle of cat faces. It’s the gamble he takes that makes the painting—or doesn’t, throwing out weeks of work, adding to the “mountain of failures.” Sending him back to the studio to begin work on his next long-haul project.

Nordman’s painting 4 A.M. was featured on the poster and publicity cards for last year’s Cabot Trail Writers Festival. The work gets an immediate laugh of recognition from writers and artists, who know all too well the manic-depressive ride that is the creative life. It’s a darkest-before-dawn self-portrait of the artist, hands clasped to his face in despair and desperation, a pair of eye glasses hanging from his right hand. It’s not just that the present, unfinished work won’t come together, that it is a failure: no, the artist is aware that he, actually, is the failure, plainly worthless and doomed never again to do anything good in his life — really, if only people knew, never has done anything any good, as his present lack of creativity so ruthlessly proves. But the background of the painting is lit up in burning colors of red and blue: the sun will soon rise and there’s a promise in the air of inspiration that will eventually return. It’s typical Nordman, from the brilliant touch of the eye glasses to the playful wit. “Hang in there!” the painting says. There’s more good stuff to come.

Ken Jessome


Ken Jessome will be covering the cultural scene for the Spectator. A playwright, he was born and raised in Whitney Pier. His play Reading won the Best Production at the 2003 Boardmore Festival and Best Canadian Production at the 2004 Liverpool International Theatre Festival (LITF). He’s currently working on his newest play, a one-act called The Girl Out Back.


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