The OCAD University community is saddened by the passing of Canadian craft advocate and OCAD U Honorary Fellow Jean Johnson, CM, who passed away on May 27 at the age of 90. Her professional and volunteer career spanned 65 years.
Johnson’s interest in the arts was rooted in her childhood. She graduated from the art program at Northern Secondary School at the age of 18, and had her first “art job” re-drawing the American comic-book superhero Captain Marvel for Canadian audiences. She lived in Venezuela from 1951 to 1961; during her time there, in addition to learning Spanish, she painted the landscape and drew botanical images.
Johnson returned to Toronto in 1961 and became curator at Merton Gallery. While there, she represented and supported the careers of several notable Canadian craftspeople; among them OCAD U alumni Kai Chan (AOCA, Interior Design,1970), David H. Kaye (AOCA, Textiles, 1972), Viktor Tinkl (AOCA, Fine Arts, 1959) and Joanna Staniszkis. When she left Merton Gallery in 1971, she was hired by the OCAD University (then known as the Ontario College of Art) to manage a retail shop, and prepare studies and reports for fundraising campaigns.
In 1979, she began what she later called “the crowning achievement” of her career, running Harbourfront’s Craft Studio. Johnson saw rich potential in the Craft Studio’s artist-in-residence program and was the driving force behind its development into a prime destination for young Canadian craftspeople. She introduced a resource library and a volunteer advisory committee to the site, as well as encouraging international exchanges and inviting leading figures to lecture and give master classes.
In 1991, Johnson became Craft Projects Manager at Harbourfront Centre. She presented a conference, Exploring Contemporary Craft History, Theory and Critical Writing, bringing curators, critics and craftspeople together and produced a book by the same name with Coach House Books. She ended her career at Harbourfront as Manager of Special Craft Initiatives. In that role, she produced the Crafting New Traditions: Canadian Innovators and Influences symposium and publication, which celebrates Canadian craft pioneers.
Johnson also contributed to the arts as a volunteer. In 1975, as a member of the Steering Committee for International Women’s Year, Johnson helped facilitate Women and the Arts, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Harbourfront. She volunteered for the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario (ARIDO) from 1975-1979, coordinating the production and installation of commissions in hospitals and city halls. She was deeply involved with the Canadian Society for the Decorative Arts since its creation 30 years ago. Later in her career, she served as President of the William Morris Society of Canada.
Johnson was a passionate supporter of Craft Ontario, loyally attending our exhibition openings and fundraising events, serving on numerous committees and as a board member from 1982 to 1983. She was a well-respected and sought after juror and board member. “I rarely say no to an experience, a job, or project, and have never worried too much about salary, the cafeteria or other amenities,” said Johnson in a 2008 interview about her career. “My participation is based on the potential to make something exciting, new and important happen.”
Recognized with many awards and honours, Johnson received was inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1993, and received an honorary doctorate from NSCAD University in 1999. In 2000, she was named as an OCAD University Honorary Fellow.
Donations in Johnson’s memory can be made to Craft Ontario via the online donation platform, over the phone by calling 416-925-4222 x227 or via cheque made out to Craft Ontario, noting "In Memory of Jean Johnson" in the memo line. Please mail cheques to Craft Ontario, 990 Queen St. W., Toronto, ON, M6J 1H1.
Edited and republished with permission from Craft Ontario. Information taken from the article "The Undeniable Grande Dame of Craft" written by Melanie Egan for the Spring/Summer 2008 edition of Studio Magazine.