Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat was an African-American artist, dancer, and educator. She gained prominence in the 1940s for her art, performance, and work to foster intercultural understanding and appreciation.
Early life and education
Thelma Johnson was born August 29, 1912 in Yakima, a small agricultural town in Washington State, to artist James Johnson, and his wife Gertrude. She was partially of Cherokee heritage. Her family moved to Portland, Oregon when she was a young child. In 1932, she graduated from Washington High School. She studied art at the Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art) in Portland from 1934 to 1935, and took additional art courses at the University of Oregon from 1935 to 1936.
The work of Thelma Johnson Streat is in my opinion one of the most interesting manifestations in this country at the present. It is extremely evolved and sophisticated enough to reconquer the grace and purity of African and American art.— Diego Rivera, artist
Streat was a multi-talented artist, seeking to express herself through many creative avenues, including oil and watercolor paintings, pen and ink drawings, charcoal sketches, mixed media murals, and textile design.
In 1938, Streat moved to San Francisco where she participated in Works Progress Administration projects. She was also included in exhibitions at the De Young Memorial Museum and San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). In 1939 until 1940, Streat assisted artist Diego Rivera in the creation of the Pan American Unity mural, for the Art in Action exhibition at Treasure Island’s Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE). A portrait of Streat, just one of Rivera’s many friends of depicted in the mural, can be seen at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) in the Diego Rivera Theatre located at CCSF’s Ocean Campus. The mural is currently undergoing restoration and will be featured in the SFMOMA’s retrospective exhibition on Rivera in 2020.
As Judy Bullington argues in her indispensable article on Streat, “the West Coast allowed highly visible indigenous traditions that generated a different kind of regional flavor from which modernists could draw inspiration. Streat’s ability to blend these multiple influences into a modernist mode enabled her to attract the attention of Hollywood arts collectors, to capture headlines across the United States, and, in the 1940s and 1950s, even to gain some international recognition.”
Her work was sometimes controversial. The Los Angeles Times reported that Streat was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan for her painting called “Death of a Negro Sailor,” portraying an African-American sailor dying after risking his life abroad to protect the democratic rights he was denied at home. The threat only made Streat believe that a program showing not only the Negro’s tribulations but also the Negro’s contributions to the nation’s wealth was needed, so she initiated a visual education program called “The Negro in History.”
Through a series of murals depicting the contributions of people of African descent, panels showed black Americans in industry, agriculture, medicine, science, meat packing, and transportation. There was even a panel on the contributions of black women.
Streat’s work often portrayed important figures in history. Along with images of well-known Americans like Frank Lloyd Wright, she painted a series of portraits of famous people of African ancestry, including concert singer Marian Anderson, singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, Toussaint L’Overture, and Harriet Tubman, and more. As a pioneer in modern African American art, her work influenced and was influenced by Jacob Lawrence, Sargent Johnson, Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, and the other artistic leaders of her time. Her ability to integrate dance, song, and folklore from a variety of cultures into a presentation package and utilize it to educate and inspire an appreciation across ethnic lines was revolutionary for her time.