Monday, August 12, 2019

Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat: Fostered Intercultural Understanding

Thelma Johnson Streat
Thelma Johnson Streat was an African-American artist, dancer, and educator who gained renown during the 1940s. A multi-talented artist who worked in a variety of media, Streat focused on ethnic themes for her art and performance endeavors.

Born in Yakima, Washington in 1912, Streat moved with her family to Portland, Oregon where she graduated from Washington High School. She began painting at the age of seven and later, studied painting at the Museum Art School, now, the Pacific Northwest College of Art, in the mid 1930s. Streat was a frequent exhibitor and worked in tempera, oil, and watercolor.

For most of the 1930s and 40s, Streat worked for the Works Progress Administration, the WPA Federal Art Project in California. She moved to San Francisco in 1938 and was a participant in exhibitions at the De Young Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Art among others. Her painting Rabbit Man was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1942. She was the first African American to have a painting bought by the museum.

Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat
Mural of Medicine and Transportation
ca 1940s
National Museum of African American History and Culture
In 1939-40, Streat worked with Diego Rivera on the Pan-American Unity Mural for the Art In Action Exhibition at Treasure Island's Golden Gate International Exposition. According to a manuscript in the Archives of the City College, Streat was the only assistant artist that Rivera trusted to paint directly on his mural. A portrait of her, along with many other friends of Rivera, can be seen at the City College of San Francisco in the Diego Rivera Theater, on Ocean Campus. Streat began working in the mural format and she developed a number of studies and maquettes (a scale model or rough draft for a sculpture) that were submitted designs for mural projects. The intensity and subject matter of her work such as Death of a Black Sailor, attracted the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, which in 1942, led to death threats. The work depicted a dying soldier's thoughts on democracy as he saw signs on defense plants stating "only white need apply," the Red Cross' refusal to accept blood donations from blacks, segregated military barracks, and restaurants' refusal to serve black servicemen.

Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat
Wild Horse
ca 1940s
6-1/2 x 9-inches mounted to 12 x 18-inch sheet of blue construction paper
A talented singer and modern dancer, Streat gave live performances, sometimes as accompaniment to her murals at their completion. In addition, she performed at New York's Interplayer's Theater in Carnegie Hall, and before audiences in Paris, France, London, England before Queen Elizabeth, and Montreal, Canada. Her dance performances were influenced by her international travel and experiences to destinations such as Mexico, Haiti, Java, the Hawaiian Islands, and Australia.
Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat
In 1945, Streat accepted the position of chair of a committee that sponsored murals to aid "Negro in Labor" education. Streat was also commissioned to create original fabric designs for women's sportswear manufacturer Koret in 1948. She followed with a series of canvases that depict the company's spring line.

Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat
The Negro in Professional Life 
(Mural Study Featuring Women in the Workplace)
ca 1945
Ink, Crayon, Watercolor on Cardstock
10 x 20 inches
Streat married her husband, her manager, Edgar Kline, in 1948. A playwright, film and play producer, they shared common interests such as education and the fight against intolerance that inspired their future projects. As a couple, they created the Children's City projects in Hawaii and British Columbia.

Streat's work was powerful, both in line and color, as exemplified by the piece Black Virgin, now in the collection of Reed College in Portland. Her work is also included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Mills College in Oakland, California, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Honolulu Academy of the Arts.
Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat
Black Virgin
ca 1940s
Oil on canvas
20 x 14 inches
Reed College, Portland, Oregon
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Streat’s art, films, textile designs, illustrations, murals, performances, and social contributions. In 1991, “Red Dots, Flying Baby & Barking Dog” was included in a group exhibit at the Kenkeleba Gallery (New York). 

Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat
Red Dots, Flying Baby, and Barking Dog
ca 1945
Pacific Northwest College of Art
Dr. Ann Eden Gibson, associate professor of art history and associate director of the Humanities Institute at State University of New York at Stony Brook, wrote an article in 1995 for the Yale Journal of Criticism titled, Universality and Difference in Women’s Abstract Painting: Krasner, Ryan, Sekula Piper, and Streat” and published “Abstract Expressionism” (Yale University Press), which included a chapter on Streat in 1997.

Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat with Drum
September, 1951
In 1959, Thelma Streat began to study anthropology at UCLA but died in Los Angeles that year. She was just 47. 

THE THELMA JOHNSON STREAT PROJECT was organized in 1991 to:

      (1) research Streat's life and work;
      (2) distribute information on the artist, her life and various avenues of creativity;
      (3) care for The Johnson Collection and make selected works available to museums and galleries for exhibits;
     (4) promote Streat's ideals through sharing her story with others.

Oregon Encyclopedia, Ginny Allen, Thelma Johnson Streat 1912-1959,, retrieved August 11, 2019.
Black Past, Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat, Cherisse Jones-Branch,, retrieved August 11, 2019.
WPA Murals,, retrieved August 11, 2019.
Newslocker, Brendan Kiley, 'Bigger Than Life' Trailblazing Northwest Artist Gets New Attention at Smithsonian,, retrieved August 11, 2019.
Thelma Johnson Streat, The Thelma Johnson Streat Project,, retrieved August 12, 2019.