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Thelma Johnson Streat Biography

THELMA BEATRICE JOHNSON was born in Yakima, Washington on August 29, 1911 to James and Gertrude Johnson.


    The family lived in Boise (Idaho) and Pendleton (Oregon) before eventually settling in Portland (Oregon). Thelma evinced a natural ability in the arts at early age and began painting at age seven.


    After graduating from Washington High School in Portland in 1932, she set out to pursue a career in art. She studied briefly at the Museum Art School in 1934 (Now the NW College of Art).


    However, it was not until Thelma left Oregon and moved to California with her new husband, Romaine Streat, 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.”


    During the WPA era, Streat met and worked with sculptor Sargent Johnson, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and other notables in the San Francisco art scene. She worked with Rivera on his Pan American Unity mural in San Francisco.


    In 1941, her paintings were exhibited at the DeYoung Memorial Museum (San Francisco). “Rabbit Man” was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (New York) on May 7, 1942 and appeared in MoMA’s “New Acquisitions” American Painting and Sculpture” show from August 26 – September 27.


    Streat’s paintings were also on exhibit at the Raymond and Raymond Galleries (New York) in that same year.


    Her painting “Robot” appeared in “The International Exhibition of Watercolor” at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943. Also in that same year, Streat created her celebrated “Death of A Black Sailor.”


    Actor Vincent Price owned the Little Gallery in Beverly Hills, where Streat’s work appeared. He mentions her by name in an interview conducted by the Smithsonian.


    From March 13 – April 14, 1944, “Rabbit Man” appeared in an exhibit entitled “Thirty American Artists” at the New York Public Library.


    During the mid-1940s, Streat moved to Chicago, where she taught children’s art classes for several years. In 1945, she painted “Shed A Tear For My Daughter.” From January 3 – February 11 of the same year, her “Mother and Baby On Desert” was included in a group show titled “The Negro Artist Comes of Age” at the Albany Institute of History and Art (New York).


    By 1946, Streat sought a new avenue of expression: interpretive dance. She returned to the San Francisco Bay area to live and had an exhibit and dance recital at the San Francisco Museum of Art in March of 1946. While “Rabbit Man” appeared first in a group show at the Newark Museum (April 12 – May 3) called “Work of Negro Artists” and then went on to another group show at the University Religious Conference in Los Angeles (May 27 – June 2) titled “Paintings By Negro Artists,” Streat was busy working on a mural project to depict the historical contributions of African-Americans.


    In the spring, she worked on the Children’s Visual Education Project in both New York and Chicago. During the summer, she traveled to the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia (Canada) to study the art, dance, and culture of the Haidah tribe. The influence of these experiences was reflected in subsequent paintings and dance performances in Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, and on Oahu and Maui (Hawaii) during the next two years.


    According to writer/historian Sharon F. Patton, by 1947, Streat was one of only four African-American abstract painters to have solo shows in New York. The other three were Romare Bearden, Rose Piper, and Norman Lewis.


    On December 12, 1948, Streat married her manager John Edgar Kline in Seattle, Washington. The couple settled in Hawaii and founded “Children’s City” in Honolulu, a center designed to help children learn about art as well as tolerance through the appreciation of cultural diversity.


    Her painting “The Boy and the Bird” was inspired by one of the children attending classes at Children’s City.


    Streat said, “If I can in any small way nourish the minds of the island children, if I can enlarge their horizons, then the purpose of my work is fulfilled.”


    Ms. Streat knew and visited former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Ms. Roosevelt mentions a 1951 visit from Ms. Streat in her Eleanor Roosevelt's Daily Journal


    The next few years were exciting and busy for Streat. She embarked on a world tour, where she enjoyed six to eight month stays in Mexico, France, England, Ireland, and Canada. She painted and performed in each leg of her tour. She returned to New York, where the popularity of her paintings was evident through folio production collection sales in 1951.


    While Streat was abroad, her work was also receiving favorable reviews in the States. “Rabbit Man” appeared in a group show titled “Contemporary Negro Art” at Hester House in Houston (Texas) from June 26 – July 17, 1949, then went on to a group show at The United Negro College Fund offices from January 19 - June 1, 1950.


    Streat and her husband pursued their interest in folklore and the common threads of all cultures. The coupled devoted much of 1958 and 1959 to traveling across North America in search of folklore and artifacts to use in second “Children’s City” that was planned for Saltspring Island in British Columbia (Canada).


    “The principal aim of ‘Children’s City’ is to eliminate those prejudices which are the outgrowth of misinformation concerning peoples of difference ethnic, economic, and cultural backgrounds through the medium of ‘scientific’ work, folklore, and to cultivate human relations which are based on mutual understanding and common interest.”


    In 1959, Streat began studying anthropology at UCLA (California). She died suddenly in Los Angeles in May.


    In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the art, films, textile designs, illustrations, murals, and contributions of Thelma Johnson Streat. In 1991, her paintings were included in a group exhibit at the Kenkeleba Gallery (New York). In 1997, Art History Professor Ann Eden Gibson, wrote “Abstract Expressionism” (Yale University Press), which included a chapter on Streat, and in 2005, Smithsonian's American Art magazine featured a comprehensive article on Streat by Art Historian Dr. Judy Bullington in the summer issue. Streat's work has also been included in a number of exhibits, including the Portland Art Museum (2003), Art Hop (2009), Museum of Modern Art (2009), Gallery 114 (2010) and Oregon Historical Museum 2010-11). In 2010, Streat was awarded a posthumous doctorate by the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), where she attended classes in the 1930s.


    For more information on Ms. Streat, please see the Sources section of this web site. If you have any questions or would like additional material, please contact The Project.

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