Artist, Teacher, Activist: Thelma Johnson Streat

Updated: Dec 24, 2020

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to include research and photos provided by the Thelma Johnson Streat Project. If you would like more information about the organization, founded in 1991 to educate the public about Streat, please visit the website here.

This year, Curbside Press introduced our Gone But Not Forgotten series about Oregon artists who we'll never get to sit down with but whose work deserves the spotlight all the same.

Some artists are taken from our world too soon, just as they were becoming recognized for their groundbreaking creativity. Others pass on in relative obscurity, without people realizing the influence they had on art scenes both big and small.

This installment focuses on a Pacific Northwest Native who had many talents. As a painter, performance artist and teacher, she paved the way for many other Black women in the arts:

 
Photo Does Not Belong To Curbside Press
Thelma Johnson Streat (Photographer Unknown)

Gone But Not Forgotten: Part 2: Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat (1911-1959)

By Alaina Martin


When we published this article it was Black History Month. Now, months later, the national conversation has been focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and the history of Black Americans. We wanted to use our platform to highlight an artist who used her work and teachings to fight racism, promote equality, and bring Black experiences -- and many other cultural experiences -- to light.


Her paintings have appeared in exhibits all around the world, in renowned galleries such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where her art still lives today. She was a lifelong learner and educator, championing the need for diversity and inclusion of all people.


 

“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

 


Early Life


Thelma Beatrice Johnson was born in Yakima, Washington on August 29th, 1911 (though some online sources place her birth in 1912). Her work included an extensive collection of abstract expressionist -- sometimes described as modernist -- paintings, textiles and performative dances. She also had an interest in folklore, teaching and activism that stemmed from a desire to teach the youth about cultures and experiences that weren’t often represented in early 20th Century America.



“She was best known and loved for her work with children," explains her online biography, which is part of the Thelma Johnson Streat Project. "Throughout her career, she performed interpretive dance, sang, told folk tales, taught, and showed her paintings to thousands of youngsters in Europe, Canada, and the United States.”


In Thelma Johnson Streat: Faith in an Ultimate Freedom, a deep dive into her work and life, her fascination with Native American culture, in particular, is said to have began young:


“She spent much of her early childhood in Pendleton, Oregon and later Boise, Idaho and Portland, Oregon, living on farms nestled among the lush Northwestern forests and rolling pastoral hills. It was in Pendleton where she initially became fascinated with the Native American culture.”


Her draw toward Native American lifestyles was likely a result of her own experiences as a Black woman in America. The book certainly highlights how her own upbringing led her to study the political realities of all underrepresented people.


“Her father, an interior decorator, was her first teacher and inspiration,” Faith in Freedom states. “Her family subscribed to The Crisis [the oldest Black-oriented magazine in the world] and Opportunity magazines [an academic journal which was published by the National Urban League], which instilled pride and invoked a political awareness of her identity as an African American.”


Shaped By Oregon’s History


Oregon's racial history was not separate from the civil rights problems that plagued other parts of the country. By the time the Oregon Territory became a state in 1859, it was the only one in the Union to contain an exclusion clause which prohibited Black people to settle there. Additionally, they were prohibited from purchasing private property.


While Oregon was officially anti-slavery, the practice had its defenders in the Territory just the same. Many enslaved African Americans were carted along the Oregon Trail by Southern settlers along with the rest of their property -- and all African Americans who had been freed from slavery, either from new federal laws or because of Oregon’s, were nonetheless not welcome here.


The territorial law, later adopted by the state, said that “freedmen” had to leave the state within two to three years or they would be “lashed” up to thirty-nine times. If they stayed, they would receive this punishment every six months until they left.


Though those laws would later be considered "unduly harsh," the racist inception of the state bled into the 20th Century and the modern era.


According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, “The clause was rendered moot by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, although it was not repealed by voters until 1926. Other racist language in the state constitution was removed in 2002. Although the exclusion laws were not generally enforced, they had their intended effect of discouraging Black settlers.”


The laws also made Oregon a hotspot for extremist views and domestic terror groups.

In 1920, Oregon had the largest population of Ku Klux Klan members per capita of any state in the Union. Oregon even had a KKK member as a governor who was a proponent of eugenics, Walter M. Pierce, in 1922. He was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.


All of this created an uphill battle for Black Americans trying to start a life in Oregon, and Streat's own experience was not free from that reality.



The collection, Faith in an Ultimate Freedom, continues:


“Streat commented later in a newspaper interview that being the only African American family in the town left her feeling lonely and isolated, and turning her energy to creative interests felt like a reprieve.


Streat’s talent was prodigious from the very beginning. She began painting at age seven and, by age seventeen, her technical mastery was sufficient to win an honorable mention for her painting depicting Father Mayer, priest of the Grotto and Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland (titled, A Priest) at the Harmon Foundation Exhibition in New York City in 1929.”


Photo Does Not Belong To Curbside Press
A young Streat, with her painting The Priest, 1929

Finding Her Style & Leaving Oregon


She finished Washington High School, located in Portland, around 1932 and continued delving into the arts. She would go on to study art at the Museum Art School in 1934 (later renamed Pacific Northwest College of Art) and the University of Oregon later that year. While her early works were mostly portraits, her unique style began to take hold over these next few years. Her art portrayed her varying subjects with dignity.


In 1935, she married her first husband, Romaine Streat, who’s last name she would use for her professional career, even after their marriage ended.


She moved to San Francisco in 1938, where she worked in the arts program at the Works Progress Administration. Started in 1935 by President Roosevelt, the WPA was best known for public works projects like bridge and dam construction, but it also sponsored arts projects and employed “tens of thousands of actors, musicians, writers and other artists,” according to History.com.



During that time, Streat worked with several famous artists, including Mexican painter Diego Rivera. She worked with Rivera on his Pan American Unity mural (seen above) in San Francisco. Rivera was known to have been very supportive of Streat’s work and gave her much encouragement throughout their friendship.

Her biography explains, “It was not until Thelma left Oregon and moved to California that her artistic talent received notice. As a WPA artist at the ‘Pickle Factory’ in San Francisco in 1941, she painted her most famous creation: Rabbit Man.


Photo Does Not Belong To Curbside Press. Painting can be found at MoMA
Rabbit Man created by Thelma Streat, 1941.

This gouache-style painting centers on a stylized anthropomorphic figure and is considered by many to be her most famous painting.


Those who have studied her art note that Native American, Mexican-Indigenous folk, and traditional African art forms were all styles that she blended into her works and performances.


It's this adherence to traditional forms that gives much of Streat's work the feel of something far older than the 20th Century.


Within a year, her painting was purchased by Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1942 for the museum, where it became a permanent piece of their collection. She is the first African American woman to be entered into the MoMA’s permanent collection .


In 1943, after her success with Rabbit Man, she painted a piece called Death of a Black Sailor, which would become controversial and would lead to her receiving death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.


Streat’s niece, Carlene Jackson, explained the painting to the Seattle Times in 2016, saying, “She did that painting after World War II, when African-American soldiers were coming back from the war… lynching at that time was extremely heightened, moving Streat to paint Death of a Black Sailor. The Klan demanded the Los Angeles gallery remove the painting. The gallery refused.”



A Global Traveler & Teacher


During the second half of the 1940’s, Streat moved from California to Chicago and began teaching art to children. She continued to study cultural traditions and to widen her artistic style and the media she worked in, including murals of Black Americans’ contributions to science, medicine, and industry.



In an article written for The Oregonian, dated August 19, 1945, Catherine Jones writes, “Thelma Johnson Streat returned home to Portland after ten years of an art career that has taken her from coast to coast and won her a scrapbook of art column press notices and comments that might well be envied by any of her brother and sister artists.”


Jones goes on, “Mrs. Streat, who feels that her art still is very much in the formative period, has managed nevertheless to win a nationwide approval of her work.”

Interestingly enough, the 1945 article seems to take a particularly soft view of the reception of Streat’s painting Death of a Black Sailor, saying, “Three years ago Mrs. Streat found another outlet for her creative ability and energies. The beginning was an anonymous letter from someone who hadn’t liked the implication of her painting… [The letter] suggested that the painting was offensive and that it should be removed at once