If there is an authority on the evolution of the I-Hos Gallery, it’s Ramona Johnson.
The popular artwork retail outlet, located on K’ómoks First Nation land, between Courtenay and Comox, celebrates 25 years of operation this month, and Johnson has been managing the business from the outset.
“We started with one counter, and one till, and myself and a [part-timer],” she said. “ It’s been enjoyable to watch it grow.”
And grow, it has.
The store has a wide – and ever-growing – variety of First Nations art, by artists from all over the country.
“One of our policies is that it has to be First Nations,” said Johnson. “I think when people are shopping on reserve, that’s what they are expecting – to buy authentic.”
About 75 per cent of the artwork is locally sourced, from the three Vancouver Island Nations – Nuu-chah-nulth, Coast Salish, and Kwakwaka’wakw.
“We have a few artists that will come in here and there and we will pick up from them, but it’s mainly those three Nations,” said Johnson.
The outsourced product comes from other Canadian companies, with the caveat that all the artwork provided is created by a First Nation artist.
“When we first started out, some of the companies we deal with use a lot of in-house artists, but I’d tell them I wouldn’t buy anything from an in-house artist – it must be First Nation,” said Johnson. “So now, they all use First Nation artists. That’s one thing that has changed hugely through the years.”
I-Hos carries everything from clothing, jewelry and accessories, to paintings, carvings, and masks.
“The kids’ area is the one area that has really grown a lot over the years,” said Johnson. “The stuffies, the finger puppets, the kids” games … and the colouring books are really popular, even with the adults.
“Our biggest sellers are the jewelry and the carvings, but we try to have things for every price range. We have things from $5 to $5,000. So even if you only have a little budget, come on in.”
The gallery’s online presence has contributed substantially to the business’s growth in the past five years. Johnson has even hired a full-time social media staffer.
“We are really lucky we started with our online efforts that long ago,” said Johnson, saying that although the spring shutdown caught them by surprise, it didn’t take long to adjust to online sales. “Now we are totally ready should we get shut down again.”
While the store is open (Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.), Johnson is encouraging shoppers to go online at ihosgallery.com as much as possible.
“We do get everyone to wear facemasks when they come, and we encourage everyone not to browse for a long time, because the area is small… it’s not only our staff and our customers, but the entire community we have to worry about,” she said.
I-Hos Gallery’s 25th-anniversary sale is an online initiative, featuring 30 per cent off nearly everything in the store.
“We do understand there are some people who can’t shop online, so we welcome them to come in and see us, but if they could do their viewing online so they know what they want before coming in, that would be great.”
Johnson said there is a special intrigue with First Nation art that gives every piece a personal touch.
“When you are buying First Nation art, lots of times you are buying their family legends,” she said. “They are sharing their family legends, they are sharing their culture with you. We always make sure the artist has explained to us what the meaning is behind every piece of art so we can share that with our customers.
“The community has been so supportive of us. We wouldn’t have lasted 25 years without such great support.”