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Who Was Thelma Johnson Streat, Black American Artist Who Earned International Fame For Her Visual And Performance Art?



WPA artist Thelma Johnson Streat achieved international acclaim for her visual and performance art. Johnson was born on August 29, 1912 in Yakima, Washington. She showed an early aptitude for the arts, and by the age of seven, she was painting.

She decided to pursue a career in art after graduating from Washington High School in Portland in 1932. On January 27, 1933, singer Roland Hayes bought four of her paintings, along with a portrait of Hayes. She married Romaine Virgil Streat in 1935 and continued to use the surname “Streat” even after they divorced.

Streat attended the Museum Art School in 1934 and the University of Oregon for a short time. However, her artistic talent was not recognized until she left Oregon and moved to California.

Her paintings were displayed at the DeYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco in 1941. Her most famous work, “Rabbit Man,” was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1942 and is now part of the museum’s permanent collection. Streat’s 1943 painting, “Death of a Black Sailor,” drew death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, but she persisted with her work.

Her work has been shown in museums around the world, including the American Contemporary Art Gallery, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the City of Paris Gallery, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

She moved to Chicago and began teaching art classes to young children for several years before deciding to study the art, dance, and culture of the Haidah tribe on Queen Charlotte Island in British Columbia, Canada. Streat was also a gifted singer and contemporary dancer. She sometimes performed dance accompaniments to her completed murals in addition to giving concert performances.

Streat married writer/manager John Edgar Kline in Seattle, Washington in December 1948. The couple moved to Hawaii and established “Children’s City” in Honolulu, a center dedicated to teaching children about art and cultural diversity. She began studying anthropology at UCLA in 1959, but tragically died that same year. In 2003, the Portland Art Museum honored her with a posthumous one-person exhibition.


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