Interview with pictorial artist and writer Richard Ong (Toronto/Canada)

I spoke with pictorial artist and writer Richard Ong (Toronto/Canada) about creating and living art both in images and words:

Karin: Hi Richard - let's jump right in. You are a passionate artist both with words and images. To which do you feel more drawn, the written and spoken word, or the pictorial arts? Where do you see the differences and what do they have in common?

Richard: Hi Karin! I would have to say that the visual arts have a stronger pull on me than writing. I'm the type of guy who would typically stop in the middle of a busy street, stare up at an odd-shaped building and say, "Geez.. that would certainly look good upside down with dark, angry clouds circling around it." However, having said that, a story would later form in my head detailing the mythical background behind this new potential artwork that I have just envisioned. So yeah, images would first form in my mind and the words may come later. From my perspective, the only difference between the written words and the visual arts is how quickly the idea can be impressed upon my head. Writing for me initially involves expanding on an idea by planning on the composition of the story, and expanding on the characters and making each as colourful as possible. When I have an artwork project in mind, I would visualize the arrangement of the central theme before sketching, and flesh out the supporting artifacts on the canvas surrounding the main character/s. It is important that the finished artwork convey a story in as much as any writing project would "paint" an elaborate setting using words. 

Karin: What do you think about music in that context: Any resemblances? Do you listen to music while working? What and why?

Richard: Music, to me, is just another form of artistic expression. Just like in writing or painting, a composer might start off with a germ of an idea derived spontaneously either from some words, a tune or a theme that inspired him/her. Just like painting, a musical composition is heavily influenced by the mood of its creator. You cannot expect to create passionate music nor paint a thought-provoking image without investing on your emotions. Unfortunately, I actually prefer the room to be quiet whenever I work, either on my day job, my artwork or writing. I have never developed the ability to synchronize nor enhance my work habits with music.

Karin: Who is your favourite painter and art movement, and why?

Richard: My two most favourite painters are Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell. This wonderful couple has inspired me in ways that I cannot even begin to describe in full. Suffice it to say that their work in both the fantasy and science fiction genres have stirred something deep inside me for years such that I could never ignore the urge to create and express my imagination. I'm not really sure if I have a favourite art movement. I enjoy the works of the French Impressionists, the Victorian Realists and the mind-bending artistic impressions of Surrealists like Salvador Dalí.

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Karin: How did you come up with the inspiration for your latest written work - what originally triggered the idea, and what challenges did you encounter as you embarked on this journey?

Richard: "The Revenant's Gift" (hyperlink: was a short story that's over ten years in the making. I was vacationing for a week at a historic bed-and-breakfast inn at the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario. The owners purchased an unsigned late 19th Century oil painting of a woman in mourning black with a somber smile on her face. Her eyes seemed to follow me wherever I walk in the parlour room and she seemed to be conveying something in my mind - her life story perhaps. I grabbed a piece of paper and started to write and I suddenly knew her name. The original short story I wrote was titled, "The Eyes of Marianne Grey." This story went through so many changes and edits through the years before eventually finding a home at Bewildering Stories. One hauntingly beautiful movie that inspired this story was "The Seventh Stream." The movie was about an Irish legend in which a seal would shed its skin and transform into a mysterious woman that could live among people. The scene that's forever burned into my head was the one in which Saffron Burrows (a Selkie) suddenly appeared from out of the shadows in the hero's cabin from a howling gale outside. When I looked up at the oil painting of "Marianne Grey," I experienced what the hero in the movie must've felt - surprised, bewitched and very much haunted.

Karin: Who would your three favourite authors be, but more importantly, why?

Richard: My three most favourite authors are Barbara Michaels, Heather Graham and Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury's writing was beautiful and poetic. He was not a science geek but he loved science fiction. With only his imagination and a beaten typewriter, Ray Bradbury could spin the most fantastic tales of our future. Only Ray Bradbury could use the word "rocket" to describe an interstellar spacecraft and it would sound perfect in modern writing. I have probably read Barbara Michaels' books repeatedly more times than the work of any other fiction author in existence. I simply love her writing - its modern gothic feel, the romance, the haunted mansions and its richness in history. Heather Graham is currently, to my mind, the late Barbara Michaels' closest successor, although her style is a lot more contemporary and more imbued with the sensibilities of the current generation.

Karin: In what language/s do you write? What is your personal "musical" language?

Richard: I only write in English, so I guess my personal "musical" language would be Enya's lyrical songs in the land of faerie.

Karin: What is "storytelling" for you? How important is the human voice for it?

Richard: To me, storytelling is like a journey in life. A person may be writing fiction, but the premise of the story is still the product of all of the author's knowledge and experience reshaped by an abundant imagination. Having said that, the "voice" of the author is a unique expression of his/her way of narrating a story that will only be apparent if the person is being true and honest. The last thing you'd want to do as a serious writer is try to emulate the style of a particular author. It is okay to be influenced by the words of other authors. That's how all writers learn to write. However, in the end, one must develop his/her own style. This is not something that happens overnight. It is the amalgam of all the literature that you've read, all the styles that you've been exposed to and your own knowledge and opinion of how the world might possibly turn if you only have your say in it. After having written thousands of pages, your own voice would naturally evolve and stand out in your work. You wouldn't even remember when it first appeared.


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Karin: Do you have any other talents which you’d like to tell us about?

Richard: I wouldn't call them talents (laughs). Just hobbies. I have many hobbies although one other stands out. Twenty years ago, I used to go indoor rock climbing with a partner. There was once a place in downtown Toronto that had a 60-foot high wall for us to climb in varying degrees of difficulty. I've even done outdoor rock climbing once at a 70-foot high abandoned limestone quarry about 45 minutes' drive south-west of Toronto, and that was very scary. I did not make it to the very top. I stopped at a ledge of the uneven wall two-thirds of the way up and stood there looking down at the sheer rocky cliff with the belaying rope tied to my belt harness. My instructor yelled at me from below to step over the edge and twist my body around so that the soles of my shoes would cushion the impact when I hit the wall during the rapid descent. I can honestly tell you that it took me a full 10 minutes to summon the courage to step off the ledge and allow gravity to pull me down. In addition to rock climbing, I have also glacial-hiked in Iceland and went on a thrill ride as a passenger on board a high-performance aerobatic plane and a jet fighter.

Karin: Is there one single book in your life that stands out, or provided some kind of turning point, major change, or affected you so deeply in some way that it changed the course of your life?

Richard: I don't think that there was a single book in my life that alone influenced me more than any other. Each book that I've ever read played a part, no matter how small. There were many books that created a permanent impression on my then, youthful imagination. Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars" triggered my love of science fiction and fantasy. Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" cemented my love for gothic fiction set in remote, desolate locations. Robert L. Forward's "Flight of the Dragonfly" nurtured my interest in hard science fiction, especially with the extrapolation of real-world science used for believable speculative writing. Shakespeare's plays such as Macbeth and Hamlet hooked me on to the world of stage and opened my eyes to the different dimensions of the English language.

Karin: Finally, what new projects do you have in the pipeline / on the horizon? Which are the most important works-in-progress right now? Which ones of your works should we absolutely read and why?

Richard: Aahhh... I really can't tell you, Karin. I'm bad with my long term plans (laughs). For the past year, I've been almost exclusively focused on art, sketching and painting whatever comes to mind. I do have two potential novels I've been planning on to write for years - a historical fiction based on Toronto in the Mid-19th Century and a futuristic tale about a high-stakes race set in a scorched-Earth environment. I cannot say anything else beyond that, but I can promise you that I would still continue to produce a lot more artwork in the years to come.




Record Album Cover (photo-digital) for "Udomeu" by the Canadian Music Band, Must Stash Hat:

Book Cover (acrylic painting) for the "Enchantress of Books and other stories" anthology by Alison McBain:



Image credits to Richard Ong.