AWJ-portrait-v2-751x1024Professor Johns’ art education career continued into the 1950s as the Normal School became affiliated with Victoria College in 1956, and into the 1960s as Victoria College became a university, the University of Victoria in 1963. As the first chairman of the Art Education Department with the rank of associate professor, a position he held until his retirement, he was the person responsible for the establishment and development of a department whose excellence was recognized, not only locally, but across Canada and abroad. Under his guidance, the department expanded in the scope and number of courses available to students, in the numbers of students who chose Art Education as their teaching specialty, and in the numbers of faculty members required to meet the needs of the students involved in this field.

To those who worked with him, Professor Johns was, without question, Mr. Art Education of B.C. Professor Johns was born in Victoria on June 26, 1905. He attended school at Burnside and North Ward Schools, followed by Victoria High School. After attending Victoria Normal School in 1922-23, he taught at Tolmie School, and later at Tillicum and Cloverdale Schools, all in the District of Saanich.

In 1928, he was appointed by the City of Victoria to teach at Sir James Douglas School. During the 1930s and 1940s, he went on to teach both art and music at George Jay School, and later North Ward School, where he became vice-principal. While at North Ward, he also served as part-time art instructor for three years at the Normal School, which at that time was held at Christ Church Memorial Hall. Dr. Denton, principal of the Normal School, taught his Grade 7 class at North Ward while he taught at the Normal School. Later he was appointed as a full-time member of the Normal School faculty.

He also played a part in the creation of a separate Fine Arts Department. His work with his own Art Education students was so popular that some of the Arts and Science students wanted access to Professor Johns’ courses. However, he was carrying a full teaching load within the Education faculty, so was unable to do more. Nonetheless, partly as a result of the students’ lobbying for his classes, the new Fine Arts Department was established. The President asked Professor Johns to Chair this new department, but as he had always been a teacher first and an artist second, he chose to stay as the Chair of Art Education.

Early in his career, to make art more accessible to a broader range of students, he arranged to display a “picture of the week”. It had the title of the painting and a brief biography of the artist beside each picture. This single picture display started an exhibition tradition that continues to the present day, expanding with time to include many works of students and faculty, and leading to the establishment of the A. Wilfrid Johns Gallery in the MacLaurin Building on the university campus.

In 1960, Professor Johns was commissioned by Victoria College to paint a mural. Scope of the University was designed for the Ewing Building, Victoria College, and consists of “…authentic symbols representing most of the professions or fields of study” then included in the life of the college and soon-to-be university. The mural now hangs in the A. Wilfrid Johns Gallery. He also worked closely with the architect to design the wing of the MacLaurin Building, which currently houses the Department of Arts in Education.

He retired in 1970, after a 47-year teaching career.

Professor Johns’ formal education in art started with some evening courses at Victoria College. He later went on to the University of Washington in Seattle, where he gained his B.A. degree with honours in Art Education.

In 1942, he married Tressie Gilliland, who was also a teacher. When they were married, she was teaching at Quadra School in Victoria, but in accordance with the rules of the time, she had to leave her teaching position once married. They had one son, Bob, who is now retired, but formerly managed the central computer facilities and computer networks at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C.

After three massive strokes, which he fought bravely, he died on May 20, 1982 at his home in Victoria.

Professor Johns was a friendly, enthusiastic and popular teacher who set the highest standards, for the institution and for himself. His reputation as an innovator in art education was widespread, and his outstanding administrative abilities provided a sound, professional basis for the Art Education department.

Throughout his career, he showed his genuine caring and love for his students, and his deep interest in their development, both personal as well as professional. He taught the importance of seeing beauty in anything. He could take the ordinary and make it spectacular. To encourage students who felt their paintings were substandard, he would patiently demonstrate how a part of their work could be isolated using a small framing device to show something very appealing. And he taught how seeing the world through children’s eyes as artists could help all of us find new or alternative perspectives in everyday surroundings.

He was an accomplished artist, producing works in a relatively broad range of styles and media, from impressionistic to abstract, from oil and watercolour painting, to printmaking and sculpture. While his output was steady during his working career, the demands of teaching took priority. However, working from his home studio in his retirement years, he was able to devote more time to two of his favourite activities, drawing and painting. During these later years, some of his best works were created, many of which he gave freely to interested friends and relatives.

While his first love was art, he was also very interested in music. Not only did he teach music in the schools, but sang as a tenor in a number of operas put on by the Victoria Opera Company many long years ago. And he was a good pianist.

But it was his interest in his garden to which he devoted most of his spare time when not working in his studio. His preference was flowers, and again in this as in his formal art, his creative and aesthetic abilities were evident; his artistically designed floral gardens were admired by all who saw them.

Professor Johns’ legacy to the University includes art exhibitions, the Art Education faculty, with its international reputation, the physical plant that houses the department, and the countless numbers of teachers who studied with him and passed their knowledge to children in the public schools of British Columbia. He touched the lives of many people, and is fondly remembered by them all.

Tressie Johns continued to support the faculty and art education through the scholarship and to further the role of the A. Wilfrid Johns Gallery. She passed away in 2005 at the age of 99.

Contributed by Marion Small, Geoff Hodder, Polly Clark, Tressie Johns, Bob Johns.

Click here to go to the A. Wilfrid Johns Scholarship.