I didn’t meet Byron Johnstad as soon as I should have. Diane Carr was to work with me on my Vietnam Resister study. She kept telling me: “Phone Byron”. It wasn’t Byron, it was the phone. Some people are e-mail persons and others like phones. Somehow I had managed to live life pretty good without having to spend time holding a receiver. The Friday before she died, she phoned me. Diane had a new cell phone. She broke the news that she had pancreatic cancer, “I don’t know how to tell you this….” while at the same time insisting that I now get in touch with Byron. He would help me. Diane was right. Byron Johnstad is one of the nicest and most helpful individuals with a great memory of what was going on in British Columbia in the late 1960s and 1970s (later, too).
Byron Johnstad studied ceramics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He received his BFA in 1965. Upon graduation, he headed across the country to study at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He graduated with his MFA in 1967. He had applied for and been contracted to teach ceramics at the Vancouver School of Art. He had a letter of employment in hand and eventually, Johnstad crossed the border as a documented landed immigrant. He was one of the first with a graduate degree in ceramics to arrive in Canada, if not the first. He says, “For several years I was the only person on the Canadian West Coast in Ceramics – a true advantage at that time and place”. It arrived in August 1967. Having turned 26 while his application for landed status was being processed, he was no longer eligible for the draft. In fact, Johnstad could have remained in the US but the social unrest and the Vietnam War caused him to immigrate regardless. It was Canada’s good fortune. But unfortunate for Johnstad, the position he came for had been given to someone else during the time it had taken for the immigration papers to be completed. Johnstad, instead, took up teaching positions in Burnaby and West Vancouver. He would later teach at Emily Carr College of Art and Design, Malaspina College, and Capilano College. He led workshops across British Columbia and Alberta.
Johnstad’s work was unique. Diane Carr often held a little plate with a simple decoration in rutile and cobalt. She would rub her finger on it saying that Johnstad’s pieces were some of the most beautiful she had ever seen. What spoke to her was a different style, one originating in Scandinavia but with a blend of Bauhaus. Johnstad told me that he was interested in the surface, one to be decorated and not that much interested in clay. His design choices were vastly different than the Leach tradition that was being taught both at the Vancouver School of Art and elsewhere in British Columbia and Canada, at the time. Johnstad’s surface decoration, using only three or four oxides – rutile, cobalt, iron, and copper – was energetic and fresh. Every piece was well designed. Over time his work began to change. By the 1980s he was exploring new forms, throwing large platters and producing sculptural forms pushing the medium as much as he could. But by 1983, the sheer physical nature of creating such large work took its toll and Johnstad began to slow down and eventually quit working with clay.
Byron’s influence as a teacher is still remembered and his talents as a ceramist were recognized when he was selected to one of a small group to a new organization, Ceramic Masters.
I am grateful for his guidance and his knowledge. Diane Carr was so right, “Call Byron”.
Main Photo: Byron Johnstad with his friend, Pete Scott, at his studio in Burnaby. Large pots are Pete Scott’s.