Spirit of Reconciliation – Smithers Interior News
– Words by Sean McIntyre Photographs by Don Denton and Lia Crowe
Tucked discreetly between a “romantic boutique” and an auto parts store in an unassuming strip mall near
downtown Duncan isn’t where you’d expect to find a rising star in the Canadian art world, and Maynard Johnny Jr. is totally cool with that.
Also, the rent is cheap and it’s near my house.
Maynard has been working in his 500 square foot space since returning from Vancouver to the Cowichan Valley during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to be closer to family and friends.
It’s easy to miss the new digs. There is no sign out front and the only artwork on the walls are the loose-leaf marker and pencil works created by Maynard’s grandchildren. Maynard sits at a table, casually sketching designs on postcard-sized sheets of card stock, while his assistant Ruth, seated at the window overlooking the mall’s asphalt parking lot, calmly blocks out the colors of a giant dorsal fin on a meter-wide canvas stretched to form a massive drum. The only other furniture is a sofa and a children’s table with a pair of small chairs, presumably used by the budding young artists who decorated Maynard’s walls.
Much of the artist’s work begins right here at his studio’s drafting table, where he sketches out ideas that shape pieces inspired by the Coast Salish tradition blended with a wide range of contemporary colors. The small sketches he now does for a client, for example, will eventually turn into a 36-by-48-inch canvas. As he draws, thoughts about proportions, color contrasts and the interplay of negative space come to life on the paper.
Maynard can trace his interest in art back to the sketches he made when he was five or six years old. He remembers drawing portraits of his family and then expanding into a wider range of comic book-style illustrations. Maynard excelled in art during his middle and high school years, but hated painting until his art teacher gave him an assignment in 11th grade, asking him to draw inspiration from his native heritage.
“I tried thinking it was going to be easy, but it was actually really hard. I stuck with it and it eventually became something I had a passion for,” he says. “I Wasn’t good at studies, but I’ve always been good at sports and art; I realized that I had a better chance of becoming an artist than a professional footballer.
Soon after, Maynard found himself living the life of an up-and-coming young artist, honing his skills and developing a unique style. There were challenges and moments of doubt, but Maynard always found the motivation and the courage to keep painting. At one point in 1999 he was ready to give up when the late Robin Williams bought one of his paintings. This moment remains a turning point in his career.
“I don’t know why it was important for someone like Robin Williams to like my work, a lot of people like my work, but for some reason I felt like I was doing the right thing when he bought my piece,” Maynard says.
His decision to stick with it turned out to be a wise one.
After spending four years in Vancouver, where he says he took his career to the next level, Maynard’s recent return to Vancouver Island has coincided with a meteoric rise in his profile. In 2021, BC Ferries commissioned Maynard to create the art that adorns the company’s new ship Salish heron. Earlier this year, Pacific FC Football Club asked Maynard to design a shirt to use as the team’s alternate kit (see story below).
And while the extra attention didn’t necessarily make his work more popular – he was already in high demand – it did make him a more recognizable presence on the West Coast art scene.
“I knew a lot of people before I moved, but now a lot of people know me,” he says. “It’s weird because people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, how are you? You’re on BC Ferries. And maybe I didn’t know who that was.
“I had already established myself as an artist, so I didn’t really need exposure, but the publicity side was amazing. People always knew I was an artist, but they didn’t know what I looked like.
Such high-exposure projects go far beyond raising one’s profile, Maynard says. He hopes to encourage Canadian businesses to play a more active role in the truth and reconciliation process. Seeing his work on the soccer field or cruising through the Gulf Islands on the Salish heronsays Maynard, he hopes non-Indigenous Canadians will reflect and make an effort to educate themselves about the mistreatment of Canada’s Indigenous population.
Talking about truth and reconciliation must be more than just token words and actions for Maynard, whose parents and grandparents were forcibly separated from their families to attend residential schools. Considering what has happened in Indigenous communities in Canada since the arrival of European settlers requires openness, humility, curiosity and introspection. Most importantly, he adds, it begins with recognizing the continued presence of the distinctive cultural communities that have inhabited territories across the continent for over 10,000 years.
“You can’t deny the facts and you have to look at them,” he says. “You have to recognize and accept that Canada was a deep, dark, messy place for Indigenous peoples, and if you can’t, there’s no way we can move forward.”
Story courtesy of Boulevard magazinea publication of Black Press Media