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 Sargent Claude Johnson  (1888 - 1967)

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Lived/Active: California/Massachusetts      Known for: mod figure, sculptor, graphics, mural

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Sargent Claude Johnson
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Sargent Johnson, African-American and Indian painter and sculptor, was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Anderson, was Swedish and his mother Lizzie Jackson, was Cherokee and Negro. The marriage was stormy due to racial problems and illness.

There were six children, Sargent being the third child. Some of the Johnson children, due to color or appearance, were accepted as Indians or Caucasians, and lived their lives as such. He, however, chose to live as a Black throughout his life. The children were orphaned at an early age, the father passing away in 1897, and the mother dying of tuberculosis in 1902.

In the early years, the children lived with an uncle, Sherman William Jackson, who
became principal of the M Street High School, and his wife, the famous Black sculptress, May Howard Jackson. Mrs. Jackson maintained a studio in Washington, D.C., and specialized in portrait busts reflecting Negro themes. Sargent was, no doubt, influenced at an early age by her. In later years, she participated in some of the same exhibitions as her nephew, Sargent.

Later the children were sent to their maternal grandparents in Alexandria, Virginia. From the grandparents' home in Virginia they were sent to school: the boys to Worcester, Massachusetts, to the Sisters of Charity, and the girls to Pennsylvania to a Catholic school for Indian and colored girls. The three girls saw Sargent for the last time in 1902.

Johnson was sent to a public school, specializing in music and mechanical drawing. While attending night school to increase his knowledge of art, he did some artwork for the Sisters of Charity and worked in their St. Vincent Hospital. One such job was copying pictures on the walls of the green house while he was ill. He was sent to Boston to attend music school but soon gave that up in favor art. Johnson lived for a while with relatives in Chicago, who were not favorably impressed by this decision to be an artist and soon he left there for the West.

Johnson arrived in the San Francisco in 1915 at the time of the great fair, the
Panama Pacific International Exposition, which had a profound influence on the California art movement. Later that year he married Pearl Lawson, a Georgia lady of English and Black French Creole ancestry. In the 1917 San Francisco City Directory, Johnson is listed as working as a fitter for Schlusser Bros.; in 1920 as an artist painting photographs for Willard E. Worden; and in 1921 as a framer for Valdespino Framers. He worked for the latter about 10 years.

Shortly after his arrival in California, Johnson attended San Francisco's avant-garde A. W. Best School of Art on California Street, studying drawing and painting; and, then, from 1919 to 1923, and from 1940 to 1942, he attended the California School of Fine Arts. He first studied under the famous sculptor Ralph Stackpole for two years, and then one year with the colorful personality, Beniamino Bufano.

Johnson and his wife separated in 1936. Pearl Adele, his daughter (and only child), remained in the care of her mother. The mother was hospitalized in 1947, and she passed away in Stockton State Hospital in 1964. Johnson visited her regularly while she was institutionalized.

Johnson's early works are portraits and busts of those who were around him, or works fashioned after ideas affecting his own life. His work gained recognition in a local exhibition in 1925. His piece, "Elizabeth Gee," was later shown at the Harmon Foundation 1928. Elizabeth was a neighbor's child, as were several of his models. Johnson's work was shown in Harmon Foundation exhibits from 1926 to 1935.

The sculptor was at his highest peak stylistically during the Harlem Renaissance era which coincided with the Harmon Foundation Exhibitions. His works became nationally and internationally known through the sales and shows of this organization. Most of Johnson's work during this period reflected the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance, making him one of the most outstanding artists producing Black subject matter. Black portraits, masks, and mother-and-child themes were repeated often in his drawings and sculpture.

He was aware of other Blacks in the arts during the Harlem Renaissance period, their writings and their music, as well as the works of other artists. He was influenced by a piece of music written by William Grant Still; and Still was influenced by Johnson's "Forever Free." It was a time of cross and counter influences.

One of the many awards won by Johnson through the Harmon Foundation was for his piece called "Sammy." It is fashioned after NAACP member Walter Gordon's son. Although Johnson seemed isolated on the West Coast, he was participating in a number of activities with other Blacks where information on the arts was available to keep them all abreast of the achievements of others.

He won an award in 1935 from the Alameda County Branch of the NAACP. He worked on murals in Black churches in Oakland; and he participated in various activities with other Black artists promoting black art in the area. During these early years, Johnson was a member of the San Francisco Art Association in 1932, and its Council Board in 1934. He served on the jury of the S.F.A.A. annuals in 1936, 38, 40, 42, 47 and 48.

In San Francisco Art Association exhibitions, Johnson received awards in 1925 for "Pearl;" in 1931 for his terra cotta head entitled "Chester;" in 1935 for his sculpture "Forever Free;" in 1938 for his lithograph "Black and White;" and in 1939, the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery acquired his terra cotta head, "Esther". In the mid-1930s, the San Francisco Museum of Art acquired the collection of the local philanthropist, Albert M. Bender, which included a number of works by Johnson.

From 1925 to 1933, Johnson established a studio in his back yard in Berkeley at 2777 Park Street, working there evenings in his spare time. He worked in wood, ceramics, oils, watercolors and graphics with equal facility.

In 1935 Johnson was employed in the massive Federal Arts Project in the Bay Area as an artist, senior sculptor, assistant supervisor, assistant State supervisor, and finally, unit supervisor. His first large project was a carved redwood organ screen in low relief, 8 feet by 22 feet, at the California School for the Blind in Berkeley, placed there in 1937. The Federal Arts Project gave Johnson the chance that he needed to express himself in new materials, and allowed him to work on a massive scale in well-equipped studios.

He also was given a project at San Francisco's Washington High School by the
San Francisco Art Commission in 1940. It is an immense frieze, executed in 1942, covering the entire retaining wall across the back of the football field, and still standing today. Johnson taught art classes for the Junior Workshop program of the San Francisco Housing Authority in 1947. That same year he taught sculpture during the summer at Mills College.

His interest in music had grown over the years, and he learned to play the guitar. The reading of art and technical books, and African and Afro-American subjects, especially African Art, was another of his favorite pastimes.

Johnson received the Abraham Rosenberg Scholarship in 1944 and 1949 which
allowed him to travel and continue his study of sculpture and ceramics. Beginning in 1945, and continuing through 1965, Johnson made a number of trips to Oaxaca and Southern Mexico. There he became acquainted with the Zapotec Indians and Mexicans in the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec, where the famous black clay pots are made. Johnson worked this material in his hotel room making intriguingly grotesque black clay figures.

This very low-fired clay, using a wood reduction firing process, creates the black smoky color of the clay body. Johnson polished and burnished his pieces with pumice before firing. Most were hollow forms. A favorite theme of his for these pieces is the do-nothing politician, a recurring theme. He also sculpted a number of Indian women, families, and abstractions. From 1947 to 1967, Johnson produced approximately 100 pieces.

Johnson moved from Berkeley to Telegraph Hill in San Francisco and then to 1507 Grant Avenue where he lived very simply and frugally, by choice, in two rooms. Sargent Claude Johnson passed away October 10, 1967 in San Francisco, California after suffering a heart attack. He had been afflicted by severe angina pectoris for over twenty years.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Boston, MA on Oct. 1, 1888. Johnson began his art studies at the Worcester (MA) Art School. After coming to San Francisco in 1915 to attend the PPIE, he opted to remain. He continued his art training at the Arthur W. Best Art School as well as the CSFA from 1919-23 and again from 1940-42. At that school Johnson was greatly influenced by teachers Stackpole and Bufano. His first recognition came in 1925 at a local exhibition and, in that year, began showing with the Harmon Foundation of New York (an organization founded to promote outstanding black Americans). Johnson both exhibited and provided statuary for Treasure Island during the GGIE of 1939. During his early years in the San Francisco Bay area he was a resident of Berkeley and taught at Mills College until 1948. He then moved back to San Francisco and lived on Telegraph Hill. Johnson died in a small hotel room on Oct. 10, 1967. Working with wood, ceramic, and stone, he specialized in American Negro subjects. Exh: SFAA, 1925-35 (medals); Harmon Foundation, 1927 (prize), 1929 (medal), 1933 (prize); CPLH, 1931 (1st prize); SFMA, 1935; Oakland Museum, 1971 (retrospective). In: San Diego Museum; Oakland Museum; SF Maritime Museum (incised relief and mosaic ceramic tile); Calif. School for the Blind, Berkeley (organ screen); SFMA.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
American Art Annual 1933; Who's Who in American Art 1936-53; Artists and People; SF Chronicle, 10-10-1967 (obituary).
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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Sargent Johnson is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Black American Artists

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