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 Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat  (1912 - 1959)



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Lived/Active: California/Oregon      Known for: portrait painter, designer, graphic artist

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Thelma Beatrice Johnson is primarily known as Thelma Beatrice Johnson Streat

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Ad Code: 4
Thelma Beatrice Jouhnson Streat
An example of work by Thelma Beatrice Johnson
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following, submitted November 2005, is written by L. Kemp of the Thelma Johnson Streat Project.

Thelma Beatrice Johnson was born in Yakima, Washington on August 29, 1912 to James and Gertrude Johnson.  The family moved to Boise, Idaho, and then to Pendleton, Oregon before settling in Portland.  Johnson (Streat) 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, Johnson 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 in San Francisco.

As a WPA artist at the “Pickle Factory” in San Francisco in 1941, she painted her most famous creation: Rabbit Man.  It was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on May 7, 1942, and appeared in MoMA’s “New Acquisitions” American Painting and Sculpture” show from August 26 – September 27.

She met and was apparently influenced by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, 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.   Streat’s painting Robot appeared in “The International Exhibition of Water Color” at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943.  

Also in that 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 Ku Klux Klan if the art was not removed from display at the American Contemporary Gallery in Hollywood immediately.

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.  She painted Shed A Tear For My Daughter in 1945.  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 SF Museum of Art in March of 1946.  While Rabbit Man appeared first in a group show at the Newark Museum (April 12 – March 3) called “Work of Negro Artists” and then in 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 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.

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 visit is fulfilled.”

On December 12, 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.

She returned to New York in 1951, where the popularity of her paintings was evident through folio production collection sales.

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.

According to Streat, “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.

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 in 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).


Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Directory.
Trustees of the Boston Public Library, Boston, 1973. p. 270.

Oregon Painters: The First Hundred Years, 1859-1959
by Ginny Allen & Jody Klevit, 1999, Oregon Historical Society.

Streat is featured in an essay on the history of black women artists in California for the exhibition and catalog PARALLELS AND INTERSECTIONS: WOMEN ARTISTS IN CALIFORNIA, 1950-2000 (Univ. of California Press).

Dictionary Catalog of the Dance Collection.
The New York Public Library. Volume 9. 1974. p. 6129
Museum of Modern Art: Library Inventory List, Part iv. (S-Z). 1984. p. 318.

Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics
by Ann Eden Gibson, Yale University Press, 1999 Reference Library of Black America. Volume 4. New York University, 1971. p. 93.

The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the African-American.
Edited & compiled by Harry A. Ploski and James Williams. The Black Artist. p. 1076.

The Negro Handbook. Editors of Ebony.
Johnson Publishing Co., Chicago, 1966. p. 355.

Who Was Who In American Art, 1898-1947.
Edited by Peter Hastings Falk. Sound View Press, Connecticut, 1985. p. 602.

"African-American Abstraction, ' an Exploration," The New York Times. Jun 28, 1991.
"Treasures from Reed's Collection," Reed College Magazine. By Aaron Jones. Reed College, Portland, May 1998.
"Art and Artists: Thelma Johnson Streat at S.F. Museum of Art," Oakland Tribune. March 17, 1946.
"Artist Dancer Will Appear," Honolulu Sun Advertiser. Feb. 8, 1948.
"The Londoner's Diary: Two Yellow Moons," Evening Standard. March 7, 1950.
The News That's Going Around, The Irish Press. May 6, 1950.
" 'Children's City' Plan of Artist-Author Pair," Santa Barbara News Press. May 31, 1953.
"Couple from Hawaii Show Folklore Paintings, Curios," Bellingham Herald. May 16, 1958.
"Hills Folklore Collected By Husband-Wife Team," Rapid City, S.D. Daily Journal. June 18, 1958.
"Visiting Hawaii Child Welfare Leaders See Folklore as Link for All Children," Sioux City Sentinal. Sept. 18, 1958. A-3.
Obituary--Mrs. John Edgar. Oregon Journal. May 14, 1959. p. 11.
Obituary--Famed Painter-Dancer Dies After Heart Attack. The Oregonian. May 24, 1959.
"Famed Painter-Dancer is Eulogized in Los Angeles," Baltimore Afro-American. Jun. 6, 1959. p. 15
"Seeing Through Theory: Intention, Identity and Agency in the wake of Abstract Expressionism." by Ann Eden Gibson, Univ. of Chicago Press, forthcoming

Actor Vincent Price owned the Little Gallery in Beverly Hills and mentions Streat in an interview with the Smithsonian.Vincent Price Interview

Landscape Artists Art / Women / California, 1950-2000: Parallels and Intersections, edited by Diana Burgess Fuller and Daniela Salvioni. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press/San Jose Museum of Art, 2002, 388 pp.
inIVA: Library - The search for freedom: African American abstract... Rose Piper; Robert Reid; Haywood Bill Rivers; Thomas Sills; Thelma Johnson Streat; Alma W. Thomas; Mildred Thompson; William White; Jack...

Letter to Marian Anderson (dated Dec. 19, 1938). Special Collections (Marian Anderson archives), Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, University of Pennsylvania.
Photographs, personal applications and letters of reference. The Harmon Collection (The Harmon Foundation). National Archives.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Yakima, WA on Aug. 29, 1912. Streat was a black artist who studied at the Portland Art Museum before moving to San Francisco in 1940. In 1947 she left San Francisco for Europe and then lived in Hawaii for a few years. She died in Los Angeles on May 21, 1959. An Abstract Expressionist, her forte was African-American subjects. She was the wife of John Edgar. Member: SFAA. Exh: City of Paris (SF), 1939; AIC, 1943; NY Public Library, 1944; SFMA, 1946; Raymond & Raymond Gallery (LA), 1951. In: MM; SFMA; Mills College (Oakland); Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Who's Who in American Art 1940; SF Chronicle, 3-2-1947; Oregon Painters 1859-1959.
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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