Thelma Johnson Streat

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Thelma Johnson Streat
Born Thelma Johnson
(1911-08-12)August 12, 1911
Yakima, Washington
Died May 1959
Nationality American
Education Museum Art School in Portland
Known for Painting, Dance
Spouse(s) Romaine Virgil Streat
(m. 1935–48)
, John Edgar Kline 1948

Thelma Johnson Streat (August 12, 1911 – May 1959) was an African American artist, dancer, and educator, who gained prominence in the 1940s for her art, performance and work to foster inter-cultural understanding and appreciation.

She was born 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. She studied art at the Museum Art School in Portland in the 1930’s.[3]

Life and work[edit]

Artist and designer[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


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.

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. Streat's work was also 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.[6][7][8]

In 1939-1940 Streat assisted Diego Rivera in the creation of the Pan American Unity mural, for the Arts in Action exhibition at Treasure Island’s Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE).[9] A portrait of Streat, just one of the many of Rivera's friends of depicted in this mural, it can now be seen at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) in The Diego Rivera Theatre on Ocean Campus.[10]

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][11]

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.[12]

Dancer, singer, folklorist[edit]

Streat traveled to Haiti, Mexico and Canada to study the traditional dance and culture of indigenous people.

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.

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 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.[13]}

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 . . . and 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.[4][11]

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, etc.

Streat’s impact on contemporary American art is still being researched and assessed. 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.[14] 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)}[15]
  • Headed the Children’s Education Project to introduce American kids to the contributions of African Americans through a series of colorful murals.[11]
  • Was threatened by the KKK for exhibiting a painting honoring a Black American sailor’s sacrifice.[16]
  • Performed a dance recital at Buckingham Palace for the King and Queen of England. (1950)[17]
  • First American woman to have her own television program in Paris. (1949)[17]
  • Worked with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera on his Pan American Unity mural in San Francisco in 1939[4][5] 9.[18]
  • By 1947, one of only four African American abstract painters to have had solo shows in New York. The other three were Romare Bearden, Rose Piper, and Norman Lewis.}[19]



  • Who Was Who In American Art, 1898-1947.

Edited by Peter Hastings Falk. Sound View Press, Connecticut, 1985. p. 602.

  • Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Directory. Trustees of the Boston Public Library, Boston, 1973. p. 270.
  • African-American Art by Sharon F. Patton. Oxford University Press, 1998, New York. P. 161
  • Dictionary Catalog of the Dance Collection. The New York Public Library. Volume 9. 1974. p. 6129
  • Museum of Modern Art: Library Inventory List, Part iv. (S-Z). 1984. p. 318.
  • Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics by Ann Eden Gibson, Yale University Press, 1999
  • Oregon Painters: The First Hundred Years, 1859-1959

by Ginny Allen & Jody Klevit, 1999, Oregon Historical Society.

  • Reference Library of Black America. Volume 4. New York University, 1971. p. 93.
  • The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the African-American. Edited & compiled by Harry A. Ploski and James Williams. The Black Artist. p. 1076.
  • The Negro Handbook. Editors of Ebony. Johnson Publishing Co., Chicago, 1966. p. 355.


  • “American Art,” Smithsonian Institution. Summer 2005.
  • "African-American Abstraction,' an Exploration," The New York Times. Jun 28, 1991.
  • "Treasures from Reed's Collection," Reed College Magazine. By Aaron Jones. Reed College, Portland, May 1998.
  • 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. Jun. 6, 1959. p. 15
  • "Couple from Hawaii Show Folklore Paintings, Curios," Bellingham Herald. May 16, 1958.
  • "Hills Folklore Collected By Husband-Wife Team," Rapid City, S.D. Daily Journal. June 18, 1958.
  • "Visiting Hawaii Child Welfare Leaders See Folklore as Link for All Children," Sioux City Sentinel. Sept. 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.


  1. ^ Young, Arashi. "Thelma Johnson Streat Mural Finds a Permanent Home in Smithsonian". The Skanner News. Retrieved 2017-02-22. 
  2. ^ "Thelma Johnson Streat (1912-1959)". Retrieved 2017-02-22. 
  3. ^ "Thelma Johnson Streat (1912-1959)". Retrieved 2017-02-21. 
  4. ^ a b c Luray, Elyse. "Investigation: WPA Mural Studies". Season 7, Episode 9. PBS History Detectives. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Bullington, Dr. Judy (Summer 2005). "New Perspective: Thelma Johnson Streat and Cultural Synthesis on the West Coast". Smithsonian Institution's American Art magazine. 19 (2): 92–107. 
  6. ^ Cederholm, Theresa Dickason. Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Directory. Boston: Trustees of the Boston Public Library. p. 270. 
  7. ^ Igoe, Lynn Moody (1981). 250 Years of Afro-American Art. New York: R.R. Bowker Company. p. 1127. 
  8. ^ Young, Arashi. "Thelma Johnson Streat Mural Finds a Permanent Home in Smithsonian". The Skanner News. Retrieved 2017-02-22. 
  9. ^ "Pan American Unity". WikiArt. Retrieved September 26, 2014. 
  10. ^ Zakheim, Masha. "Pan-American Unity, Historical Essay". FoundSF. Retrieved September 26, 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c Jones, Catherine (August 15, 1945). "Freedom for Negroes Linked With the Arts". The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon. 
  12. ^ "'Bigger than life': Trailblazing Northwest artist gets new attention at Smithsonian". The Seattle Times. 2016-10-07. Retrieved 2017-02-21. 
  13. ^ "Painter's Death Of A Black Sailor Attracts Attention". The Black Dispatch. December 4, 1943. 
  14. ^ Patton, Sharon F. (1998). African American Art. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 161. 
  15. ^ The Guerrilla Girls (1998). Guerrilla Girls Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. The Guerrilla Girls. 
  16. ^ "KKK Threatens Woman Painter". The Pittsburgh Courier, national edition. December 4, 1943. 
  17. ^ a b "Thema (sic) Streat At The Curran Starting Feb. 26". The Daily Recorder, Sacramento, California. February 13, 1953. 
  18. ^ Wysinger, Lena M. (September 15, 1940). "News of Activities of Negroes". The Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California. 
  19. ^ Patton, Sharon F. (1998). African American Art. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 161. 

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