Ona and Syd

Published on 16 April 2018

Ona and Syd

Of all the creatives sprinkled through The Artisan Hills, few can match Ona Henderson and Syd Tunn (Ona and Syd) for colour, warmth, eccentricity and storytelling. If you haven’t visited their art studio nestled deep in Bend of Islands, give them a call. But only after 10am. The pair work late and sleep late. “We can’t function until we’ve had a cup of tea from the machine that doubles as our alarm clock,” laughs Ona, as is her wont. “After brekkie we’re ready to go.” 

Paint that is: works in several styles inspired by local flora and fauna, dreams, clients and, most importantly, each other. Ona, you see, is the missing jigsaw piece in Syd’s life, and vice versa, with a love stretching back to the late 1970s, when she was a psychologist by day and artists model at night, he an ad designer who did life drawing on the evenings work allowed. She’d had several failed engagements, he a broken marriage. Frustrated by ineligible suitors, she’d gone bush, determined to pursue her first love, art; he was building in Macclesfield, similarly resigned to single life. Then one night, separated only by a canvas, they met. 

Says Ona: “He clapped eyes on me, I was looking at him, with his two odd socks and terry towelling money bag for a hat that made him look like a muppet … and something clicked.”

Forty years later Ona and Syd’s relationship is as deeply coiled as the gum tree roots beneath their studio. Their contribution to Nillumbik is huge: it was they who founded Open Studios in 1983 with close knit colleagues; whose voluntary art therapy classes healed psychological wounds after Black Saturday; who mentor aspiring artists and encourage established ones. Envy and insecurity rife in the art world has no place in their lives. 

Not that they haven’t done well, with 4500 pieces sold over 38 years. “We’ve been fortunate enough to live entirely from art,” says Syd. “We’ve had shows in New York and London where paintings have fetched high rates, but we’ve mostly sold at studio prices, which saw us through the art world crash in 1991-92.” 

“We’ve stayed humble, we do our own framing for example,” adds Ona. “Goodness, when we first started we set ourselves the challenge of eating on $10 a week and managed. We don’t need a lot to get by. Simply doing what we love is riches enough.” 

Their latest project - quite literally ‘their’ - came to Ona in a dream. “I regularly seed questions before bed, trusting that the answers will come in sleep,” she says. “We’ve been tending my ill father for some time and I asked, “How can I manage my time better and still do something new that creates interest and focus, something we can support each other with creatively?” 

“It’s a whole new way of working together,” says Syd of the CollaborArt duet series, three tiered paintings in which they explore a subject individually and together, and which feature in the upcoming Open Studios (May 5th & 6th).


Creek House Studios, Corner Henley and Oxley Roads, Bend of Islands
03 9712 0393
Open by appointment
Ona and Syd website