Onni Saari – New York Artist and Native Son (1920 – 1992)

By Edie Clark
In 1991, I began producing a series of art shows at the Chesham church. The shows were fund-raisers for the Harrisville-Chesham Congregational Church and we had already presented successful shows with works by local artists such as Dennis Sheehan and William Preston Phelps. I was looking for more local talent and a longtime Harrisville resident, Peggy Colony, suggested that I might be interested in the works of Onni Saari. Onni, I was told, grew up in Harrisville but, since the 1940s, had lived and worked in New York City. Peggy showed me a watercolor Onni had painted of her house in the center of Harrisville, a lovely rendition of the graceful, green-shuttered brick house on a small rise above the mills. The painting was evocative enough so that I wrote to Onni and asked if he might be interested in doing a show with us. He wrote back that, although he appreciated my interest, his work was mixed up in an accumulation of “fifty years of clutter and piles of art school paintings.” He didn’t seem to think that extracting anything from that pile would be possible.

Those piles, it turned out, were here in Harrisville, in the barn behind the house where Onni grew up along with his brother, Toyvo. On my next trip to New York, I decided to call Onni in hopes I could further encourage him to do a show with us in Harrisville. He invited me to his apartment on East 52nd Street, right around the corner from Cartier. He had lived in that apartment for roughly fifty years and, due to rent control, he was proud to report, was still paying 1950s-style rent. Although Onni had been described to me as shy and even reclusive, he welcomed me into his cavernous apartment. He had furnished the entire place with things that he had found on the sidewalks of New York. The walls of the high-ceilinged rooms were lined with bookshelves, groaning with an amazing collection of hefty art books.

He was clearly happy to have someone from his hometown visit him. Though he rarely came to Harrisville, his affection for the town was clear. On the shelf in the foyer, he had a small, framed photograph of himself (alongside his illustrious longtime friend, Ellsworth Kelly — a recent recipient of the prestigious MacDowell Medal as well as many other lifetime achievements) standing beside Harrisville Pond. A good portion of our conversation that evening was devoted to Onni’s concern over what would become of his extraordinary collection of art books. He wondered if the Harrisville library might be interested in them but I suggested that a wing would have to be added to the tiny building to accommodate all these fabulous books. More important, I said, were his paintings. What was to become of his work?

At that time, I knew of his work only by that one painting I had seen but that evening, he told me a bit about his past. He was born in 1920, the son of Sara and John Saari. John was the gardener and all-around handyman at the MacVeagh estate in Dublin. Perhaps through that connection, Onni’s artistic talent came to the attention of Dublin artists, Barry Faulkner and Alexander James. They sponsored a show of his work in the late 1930s, at the Harrisville library. At the age of 17, Onni left Harrisville to attend art school in Manchester, then Boston and, finally, Paris. After serving in the Merchant Marine in WWII, Onni settled in New York City where he continued painting, changing his style from realism to abstract expressionism. He supported himself with freelance design work for magazines and television. He also designed book jackets and record covers.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Onni exhibited his paintings at galleries in New York City. He listed such luminaries as William Inge and Sam Peck among those who had acquired his canvases. Though Onni was tremendously prolific, he became more and more reluctant to sell his work. When I spoke with him about his work, he was dismissive, almost derisive about it. He did not have any paintings of his own at his apartment and so, I still had seen only that one painting.

At the time of my visit, he showed me a Polaroid of a house he was thinking of buying in the town of Hudson, in upstate New York. His apartment, he said, had become too cluttered to able to paint. In this house, there would be room for all of his paintings, and there would be room for him to set up a studio where he could resume his painting career. He seemed ambivalent about the move and asked me what I thought. I told him that if it meant a return to his painting, it sounded like a very good idea.

Soon after that visit, Onni bought the house in Hudson and moved out of his apartment in New York. He came to Harrisville in a rented U-Haul truck and collected all of his many paintings and sketches and took them to their new home along the Hudson River. He called me and invited me to visit him when I could. I said I would love to and once again brought up the possibility of doing a show in Chesham. I felt as if he was beginning to consider the possibility. I was excited about his prospects of resuming his art career.

A month or two later, Onni died in his new home. I was startled by the news as he was, at that time, in his early seventies and appeared to me to be in excellent health. I was similarly concerned about the fate of his canvases, since he had expressed so little regard for them when we had talked. I got in touch with the two men who were directing his estate. They told me that there was to be a yard sale and some of the paintings would be sold there. On hearing this, I made a beeline for Hudson and the house where Onni had only recently set up housekeeping. I saw his work then for the very first time. And the new studio he had described to me. In the attached barn, there were hundreds of canvases, nearly a lifetime of work, all in that one place. This in itself was rare and remarkable. Many of the canvases were striking. The styles were various, seeming to span the entire spectrum of twentieth century American art. I purchased as much as my checkbook would allow at that time, including a large watercolor of Harrisville Pond and an oil of what I presumed to be his home kitchen in the house on Kadakit Street in Harrisville. I also mentioned to his executors my interest in doing a show of his work. This conversation resulted in a show and sale of Onni’s work in Harrisville in July of 1993.The show was very well attended and many works were sold to admirers from Harrisville as well as from as far away as Indiana and California.

There are times in our lives when we unexpectedly encounter extraordinary people. Certainly I would categorize my encounter with Onni Saari in that way. Though the show was a successful fund raiser, I was especially pleased to realize that, as a result of that show, his name and his art were resurrected and recognized, as they should have been all along.