Ramona Johnson frequently runs into former acquaintances at the I-Hos Gallery. A recent visitor, for instance, turned out to be a classmate from her days as a kindergarten student in the Comox Valley.
Johnson has managed the award-winning gallery since it opened 20 years ago on Dyke Road at the K’ómoks First Nation village.
The gallery — which includes a collection of Northwest Coast artwork by numerous First Nations artists — has been honoured by the B.C. Aboriginal Business Awards, Aboriginal Tourism British Columbia and the Chamber of Commerce.
Trip Advisor has listed the gallery at number seven on the top 20 list of things to do in the Comox Valley.
I-Hos attracts visitors from around the world, especially in recent years with the “click and buy” luxury of online technology.
“Sales on our website are much higher than when we started,” Johnson said. “We’ve had people in from Scotland, from England, from Australia. That’s all just this week. And it’s slow time. They’re all visiting family and friends here.”
Recently, she hosted her first tour from China.
But perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of working at the gallery is dealing with parents who have purchased graduation gifts for their children.
“And now their kids are coming in with their new families and new lives, and they’re buying artwork for their homes or their office, and showing me the graduation gift they received.”
After growing up in the Valley, Johnson (née Billie) had lived in Calgary and Toronto (where she worked at the CN Tower) before taking resort management at North Island College.
“Tourism is the area I chose and I’ve been in it for probably 25 years.”
Johnson jokes about the perks that come with age, such as free cable.
“You’re first in line. The older you get the more you get…I’m an elder in our reserve now.”
Johnson had worked a couple years at a floating fishing resort in the Tofino-Ucluelet area before managing I-Hos. She had also worked at Mount Washington.
While at NIC, she wrote a report which said she wanted to work in a native art gallery that promotes First Nations people.
“And that’s exactly what I ended up doing,” she said.
Johnson volunteers time at Vancouver Island MusicFest and the Child Development Association telethon. She also busied herself the last couple years helping co-ordinate the Walking With Our Sisters memorial exhibit that honours missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls.