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Thelma Johnson Streat

Thelma Johnson Streat was an important WPA artist who eventually earned international acclaim for her visual and performance art.

THELMA BEATRICE JOHNSON was born in Yakima, Washington on August 29, 1912. Streat evinced a natural ability in the arts at an early age and began painting at age seven.

She graduated from Washington High School in Portland in 1932 and set out to pursue a career in art. On January 27 of the following year, singer Roland Hayes purchased four of her paintings, including a “Portrait of Roland Hayes.” In July, two paintings appeared in a non-jury exhibit at the New York Public Library sponsored by the Harmon Foundation.

She married Romaine Virgil Streat in 1935 and used Streat as her professional name even after the marriage dissolved.

She studied briefly at the Museum Art School in 1934 (Now the NW College of Art) and at the University of Oregon. However, it was not until she left Oregon and moved to California that her artistic talent received notice. In 1941, her paintings were exhibited at the DeYoung Memorial Museum (San Francisco).

As a WPA artist at the “Pickle Factory” in San Francisco in 1941, she painted her most famous creation: “Rabbit Man.” “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.

During this time she met and worked with other WPA artists like Sargent Johnson.

She also met and was apparently influenced by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera at this time, because in the spring of 1942, Streat exhibited African and Mexican designs intended as decorations for children’s rooms in a show called “Western Living-Designs for Fine Modern Houses” at the San Francisco Museum.

Her artwork was also on exhibit at the Raymond and Raymond Galleries (New York) in that same year and her painting “Robot” appeared in “The International Exhibition of Water Color” at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943.

In the same year, Streat created her celebrated “Death of A Black Sailor.” This painting, which honored a Negro sailor who died a war hero, stirred controversy in Los Angeles in May when she received a death threat from the Klan unless the art was removed from display at the American Contemporary Gallery in Hollywood immediately.

During the mid 1940s, Streat moved to Chicago, where she taught children’s art classes for several years. From January 3 – February 11, 1945, 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 SF Bay area and had an exhibit and dance recital at the SF Museum of Art in March of 1946. She then worked on the Children’s Visual Education Project in both New York and Chicago, creating murals to illustrate the historical contributions of African Americans.

During the summer, Streat traveled to the Queen Charlotte Island of 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 Hawaii over the next two years.

In December of 1948, Streat married writer/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 to appreciate cultural diversity.

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 travels.

While Streat was welcomed 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 from June 26 – July 17, 1949, then went on to a group show at The United Negro College Fund offices from January 19, 1949 – June 1, 1950.

After returning to New York in 1951, Streat and her husband pursued their interest in folklore and the common threads of all cultures. The coupled devoted much of 1956-59 to traveling across North America in search of folklore and artifacts to use in a second “Children’s City” that was planned for Saltspring Island in British Columbia.

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

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). 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.

Streat has also been included in recent books like “Oregon Painters: The First Hundred Years, 1859-1959″ by Ginny Allen and Jodi Klevit (1999) and Art/Women/California, 1950-2000: Parallels and Intersections” by art historian Dr. Judith Wilson (2002).

An extensive article on Streat by art history professor Dr. Judith Bullington was featured in the Summer 2005 issue of American Art Journal (Smithsonian American Art Museum).

The Thelma Johnson Streat Project website