Thelma Johnson Streat

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Thelma Johnson Streat
Thelma Johnson Streat
Thelma Johnson

(1911-08-12)August 12, 1911
DiedMay 1959(1959-05-00) (aged 47)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
EducationMuseum Art School in Portland
Known forPainting, Dance
  • Romaine Virgil Streat (m. 1935–1948)
  • John Edgar Kline (m. 1948)

Thelma Johnson Streat (August 12, 1911 – May 1959) 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[edit]

Thelma Johnson was born August 12, 1911 in Yakima, a small agricultural town in Washington State, to artist James Johnson, and his wife Gertrude.[1][2] Her family then moved to Portland, Oregon. In 1932, she graduated from Washington High School.[3] She studied art at the Museum Art School in Portland from 1934 to 1935,[3][2] and took additional art courses at the University of Oregon from 1935 to 1936.[3]

Art work[edit]

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[4][5]

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 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).[6] A portrait of Streat, just one of the many of Rivera's friends of depicted in this mural, it can be seen at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) in The Diego Rivera Theatre on Ocean Campus.[7]

Select exhibitions[edit]

Her paintings have appeared in exhibits at museums and galleries including:


Her most well-known painting, "Rabbit Man," is part of the MoMA's permanent collection.[13] Streat was the first African-American woman to have a woman to have a painting purchased by MoMA, when the painting was purchased in 1942.[8] Streat's work was added to the permanent collection of The Smithsonian when they purchased "Medicine and Transportation Mural" in 2016. The mural resides at the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington D.C.[14][15][1]

Her painting "Medicine and Transportation" is on display as part of the permanent collection in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.[16]

People who have owned Streat's work include actor Vincent Price, singer Roland Hayes, artist Diego Rivera, actress Fanny Brice, dancer Katherine Dunham, and actress Paulette Goddard.[5][17]

Dancer, singer, and folklorist[edit]

Streat traveled to Haiti, Mexico and Canada to study the traditional dance and culture of indigenous people.[when?][citation needed]

She realized that prejudice and bigotry are learned and usually during childhood. So, throughout the 1940s and 50s, she performed dances, songs, and folk tales from many cultures to thousands of youngsters across Europe, Canada, Mexico, and the United States in an effort to introduce them to the beauty and value of all cultures.

Teacher and activist[edit]

With her second husband, John Edgar Kline, Streat founded Children's City near Honolulu, to introduce children to art and to the value of cultural diversity.[citation needed]

Her portraits present men, women, girls, and boys of every color, age, shape, and size with dignity.

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.[18] 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."[citation needed]

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.[4][17]

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.[19] 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.[5]

Honors & accomplishments[edit]

  • Gained national recognition at age 18, when her painting titled "A Priest" won honorable mention at the Harmon Foundation exhibit in New York City (1929).[5]
  • First African-American woman to have a painting exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York (1942).[20]
  • Headed the Children's Education Project to introduce American kids to the contributions of African Americans through a series of colorful murals.[17]
  • Was threatened by the KKK for exhibiting a painting honoring a Black American sailor's sacrifice.[21]
  • Performed a dance recital at Buckingham Palace for the King and Queen of England (1950).[22]
  • First American woman to have her own television program in Paris (1949).[22]
  • Worked with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera on his Pan American Unity mural in San Francisco in 1939.[4][5][23]
  • By 1947, one of only four African American abstract painters to have had solo shows in New York City. The other three were Romare Bearden, Rose Piper, and Norman Lewis.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Young, Arashi. "Thelma Johnson Streat Mural Finds a Permanent Home in Smithsonian". The Skanner News. Retrieved 2017-02-22.
  2. ^ a b Allen, Ginny. "Thelma Johnson Streat (1912-1959)". The Oregon Encyclopedia. Portland State University and the Oregon Historical Society. Retrieved 2017-02-22.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Thelma Johnson Streat: Faith in an Ultimate Freedom". Tyler Fine Art. Retrieved 2019-02-27 – via Issuu.
  4. ^ a b c Luray, Elyse. "Investigation: WPA Mural Studies". Season 7, Episode 9. PBS History Detectives.
  5. ^ a b c d e Bullington, Judy (Summer 2005). "New Perspective: Thelma Johnson Streat and Cultural Synthesis on the West Coast". American Art. Smithsonian Institution. 19 (2): 92–107. doi:10.1086/444483.
  6. ^ "Pan American Unity". WikiArt. Retrieved September 26, 2014.
  7. ^ Zakheim, Masha. "Pan-American Unity, Historical Essay". FoundSF. Retrieved September 26, 2014.
  8. ^ a b c d e "Thelma Johnson Streat, Artists". Modernism in the New City: Chicago Artists, 1920-1950. Retrieved 2019-02-27.
  9. ^ "New Acquisitions: American Painting and Sculpture". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 2019-02-27.
  10. ^ Potter, Berit (June 2017). "Grace McCann Morley: Defending and Diversifying Modern Art · SFMOMA". Retrieved 2019-02-27.
  11. ^ "Visual Art and the American Experience". National Museum of African American History and Culture. 2016-09-16. Retrieved 2019-02-27.
  12. ^ "Visual Art and the American Experience at the African American Museum of History and Culture". DAILY SERVING. Retrieved 2019-02-27.
  13. ^ "Thelma Johnson Streat. Rabbit Man. 1941". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 2019-02-27.
  14. ^ Cederholm, Theresa Dickason, ed. (1973). Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Directory. Boston: Trustees of the Boston Public Library. p. 270.
  15. ^ Igoe, Lynn Moody (1981). 250 Years of Afro-American Art. New York: R.R. Bowker Company. p. 1127.
  16. ^ "'Bigger than life': Trailblazing Northwest artist gets new attention at Smithsonian". The Seattle Times. 2016-10-07. Retrieved 2017-02-21.
  17. ^ a b c Jones, Catherine (August 15, 1945). "Freedom for Negroes Linked With the Arts". The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon.
  18. ^ "Painter's Death Of A Black Sailor Attracts Attention". The Black Dispatch. December 4, 1943.
  19. ^ Patton, Sharon F. (1998). African American Art. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 161.
  20. ^ The Guerrilla Girls (1998). Guerrilla Girls Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. The Guerrilla Girls.
  21. ^ "KKK Threatens Woman Painter". The Pittsburgh Courier, national edition. December 4, 1943.
  22. ^ a b "Thema (sic) Streat At The Curran Starting Feb. 26". The Daily Recorder. Sacramento, California. February 13, 1953.
  23. ^ Wysinger, Lena M. (September 15, 1940). "News of Activities of Negroes". The Oakland Tribune. Oakland, California.
  24. ^ Patton, Sharon F. (1998). African American Art. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 161.

Further reading[edit]


  • Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. (1985). Who Was Who In American Art, 1898-1947. Connecticut: Sound View Press. p. 602.
  • Dictionary Catalog of the Dance Collection. Volume 9. The New York Public Library. 1974. p. 6129.
  • Museum of Modern Art: Library Inventory List, Part iv. (S-Z). 1984. p. 318.
  • Gibson, Ann Eden (1999). Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics. Yale University Press.
  • Allen, Ginny; Klevit, Jody (1999). Oregon Painters: The First Hundred Years, 1859-1959. Oregon Historical Society.
  • Reference Library of Black America. Volume 4. New York University. 1971. p. 93.
  • Ploski, Harry A.; Williams, James, eds. The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the African-American. The Black Artist. p. 1076.
  • Ebony (1966). The Negro Handbook. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co. p. 355.


  • Smith, Roberta (June 28, 1991). "Review/Art; 'African-American Abstraction,' an Exploration". The New York Times.
  • Jones, Aaron (May 1998). "Treasures from Reed's Collection". Reed College Magazine. Reed College, Portland.
  • "Obituary—Mrs. John Edgar". Oregon Journal. May 14, 1959. p. 11.
  • "Obituary—Famed Painter-Dancer Dies After Heart Attack". The Oregonian. May 24, 1959.
  • "Famed Painter-Dancer is Eulogized in Los Angeles". Baltimore Afro-American. June 6, 1959. p. 15
  • "Couple from Hawaii Show Folklore Paintings, Curios". Bellingham Herald. May 16, 1958.
  • "Hills Folklore Collected By Husband-Wife Team". Daily Journal. Rapid City, S.D. June 18, 1958.
  • "Visiting Hawaii Child Welfare Leaders See Folklore as Link for All Children". Sioux City Sentinel. September 18, 1958. A-3.
  • "The Londoner's Diary: Two Yellow Moons". Evening Standard. UK. March 7, 1950.
  • "The News That's Going Around". The Irish Press. Ireland. May 6, 1950.
  • "Art and Artists: Thelma Johnson Streat at S.F. Museum of Art". Oakland Tribune. March 17, 1946.


  • Letter to Marian Anderson (dated Dec. 19, 1938). Special Collections (Marian Anderson archives), Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Photographs, personal applications and letters of reference. The Harmon Collection (The Harmon Foundation). National Archives.

External links[edit]