For nearly three decades, Ramona Johnson has supported, curated and worked with First Nations artists to provide a showcase to sell their work at the I-Hos Gallery.
Throughout her time as gallery manager, Johnson has directly worked with hundreds of artists, and her approach to each one has never changed: “Always be kind, caring and respectful,” she explains.
In September, Johnson – named Tsa Tsi li Dzam’ga (giving) and K’alam’alaga (warrior woman) – left the gallery on medical leave, leaving a legacy behind her. Since its inception, she has been the only manager, growing the gallery as a destination for tourists and locals alike, even using the space to incorporate an information section to raise awareness and promotion of Vancouver Island and Indigenous tourism opportunities.
When it first began, Johnson says there weren’t many galleries on reserve; I-Hos Gallery is owned and operated by the K’ómoks First Nation of which she is a member.
“We became known to companies quickly that gave respect to artists. I would give feedback in a kind manner that came from my clients – most were open to listening.”
Johnson has always been interested in interacting with the public – some of her first jobs included working in banking, then in customer service as a hostess in the CN Tower in Toronto. She returned to the Comox Valley to complete a two-year resort management course at North Island College in 1994. She worked as the in-house manager at a floating fishing resort in Ucluelet for two seasons prior to taking the manager position in November 1995.
She credits the partnerships she made with Indigenous Tourism BC and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada – a connection that she believes has helped I-Hos flourish.
“I don’t believe I’d be without banding together – we wouldn’t have gotten the exposure we have – the joint marketing has made (the gallery) what it is today. The people who have supported us have meant so much to us (as well). It’s our local community that has helped us grow.”
Throughout the decades, she has fostered meaningful relationships with Indigenous and non-Indigenous families who have relied on her expertise and the quality of I-Hos merchandise, returning to Northwest Coast Indigenous art and crafts.
Johnson recalls a variety of memorable clients she’s helped serve. An artist from Finland once visited the gallery to meet her in person and deliver a special gift for her – a reindeer bracelet. Another client established a relationship and trusted her to pick out his wife’s Christmas presents sight unseen and deliver them to Los Angeles. Another client she remembers fondly who frequented the gallery was the previous owner of Sunkist (orange) Growers.
As part of her role, Johnson wanted to support and grow events within the community – one which stands out prominently in her mind was Walking With Our Sisters, a memorial for missing and murdered Indigenous women. The collaborative event, which took place during the summer of 2015, allowed the gallery to gain significant exposure.
“When I wrote a letter (to the organizers) to see if I could bring it here, I thought it was going to be an event in the gallery; it turned into one of the biggest events we’ve ever organized.”
Johnson’s last day was at the end of September. Every three months she returns to hospital for an infusion following a double mastectomy a year ago. She reflects on her time in the community – as a speaker at various Rotary groups, chamber of commerce meetings and North Island College’s ElderCollege – and at the gallery.
“I’m going to miss the public and the artists (I worked with). Fortunately, we can stay in contact through social media. I am just so thankful for the support that everyone in the community has given and am grateful for the legacy I leave behind.”