Each and every one of us has some special talent that we can do like no other. Some can swallow swords, others can contort their bodies in mesmerizing ways, while others have a knack for math and can do crazy equations in their head, and even some have the ability to retain a plethora of knowledge and never forget a thing.
We’re all impressive in our own unique way, and some people even have a multitude of talents, earning them the title of “jack of all trades” in these cases.
One such young woman with many talents from the Yakima community who is now gone but not forgotten was African American artist, dancer, singer, folklorist, teacher, and activist Thelma Johnson Streat.
Thelma’s Early Life and Education
Born on August 29, 1912, in what was then the small agricultural town of Washington, one could argue that Thelma got her artistic talents from her father, James Johnson, who was also an artist. She, her father, and her mother, Gertrude, moved to Portland when she was a young child, which would have a profound and lasting influence on Thelma’s artistic practices and production.
She began painting at the age of seven, and as she grew up, her sense of pride in her family’s African American identity and a fascination with the rich indigenous traditions of the Northwest as she was partially of Cherokee heritage. This would be the driving factor in her future works as she would develop a lifelong commitment to forging cross-cultural influences, as reflected in each piece she created.
By the age of 17, Thelma was already exhibited at the Oregon Federation of Colored Women and at a Harmon Foundation Exhibition in New York, where she would win an Honorable Mention for her painting entitled “A Priest.” This would all be accomplished after her graduation from Washington High School in 1932. Much of her early work would be exhibited frequently in local venues, mostly portraiture and representational in style. She would even go on to have a second Harmon Foundation exhibition at the New York Public Library.
Upon graduation, Thelma embarked on a career as a professional artist and pursued additional training at the Art Museum School in Portland from 1934 until 1935. From there, she would go on to study at the University of Oregon in Eugene from 1935 until 1936.
Thelma’s Art Career
After graduation, Thelma pursued her artistic dreams by heading to San Francisco in 1938 with her husband, Romaine Virgil Streat, who she’d married in 1935. It was here that she participated in Works Progress Administration art programs. The administration itself was an American New Deal agency created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat the Great Depression.
By the late 1930’s Thelma was already beginning to receive attention on a national level from showings of her work at galleries in Portland and her new home city of San Francisco at the San Francisco Museum of Art, as well as being featured in many African American exhibitions including the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940.
During the same year, she also participated in the interactive exhibit Art in Action at the Golden Gate International Exposition, assisting muralist Diego Rivera with the Pan-American Unity mural.
The partnership with Rivera would further cement Thelma’s interest in, and ultimately, her standard for multiculturalism throughout her career. And while her interest focused on these aspects of representation for herself and her cultures, others would become increasingly interested in her. Soon she had exhibitions of her works at Stendahl Galleries in Los Angeles in 1940, followed by the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco in 1941, the Raymond & Raymond Gallery in New York in 1942, the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943, and the influential Little Gallery in Los Angeles in 1943, owned by actor Vincent Price.
Her exhibit at the Little Gallery would result in increased visibility, critical recognition, and many of her works being purchased. African American singer Roland Hayes would buy four of her paintings, one of her first major successes as a professional artist, along with becoming the first African American woman to have a painting purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1942. The painting, entitled “Rabbit Man,” is a true testament to the convergence of influences in her work as the piece displays abstract symbolic imagery, stylistic elements from Northwest Coast Indigenous art, and African American facial features. Thelma’s incorporation of elements from African, Mexican, and Canadian art would distinguish her the most from her peers, as many American painters at the time were turning to European modernism for inspiration.
Thelma Moves to Chicago to Create Murals
In 1944, Thelma left California to settle in Chicago, where she would gain the titles of teacher and activist after chairing a committee to sponsor murals as part of a “negro in labor” education movement.
She began work on several mural designs of African Americans, a project she had become passionate about after the debut of her mural “Death of a Black Sailor” in Los Angeles the prior year. The mural depicted an African-American sailor dying after risking his life abroad to protect the democratic rights he was denied at home. This resulted in her being threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, who deemed the work controversial.
Instead of these threats deterring Thelma from her work, they only made her shift gears as she realized that now only did she need to showcase the trials and tribulations African Americans endured, but she also needed to educate the public on their contributions to education, agriculture, medicine, science, transportation, and industry which she decided to illustrate through many murals.
One of these murals, “Women in Work,” was later entered into a competition by Thelma at Chicago’s Southside Community Art Center and tied for first prize with William Carter. Another mural, “The Negro Woman in Industry,” was exhibited in the lobby of the Portland Civic Center in the summer of 1945. The mural’s debut was accompanied by a dance presentation from Thelma, leading her toward incorporating dance in her magnificent works of art.
Thelma Develops her Skills as a Dancer, Singer and Folklorist
In 1946 Thelma traveled to Haiti to study dance until 1951 as she saw it as an important inspiration for social change and a catalyst for challenging societal norms. She also visited Mexico and Canada to learn the dance routines of other cultures. A series of groundbreaking performances followed at museums and other venues around the country, with her new choreography routine debuting at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1946. Her travels inspired the routine and combined African, Haitian, Hawaiian, Native American, Portuguese, and other indigenous dance forms.
Thelma’s decision to combine her two-dimensional art with movement and sound proved to be an effective tool as her artwork became much more provocative by engaging the viewer. She used this momentum to perform dances, songs, and folk tales from many cultures to thousands of children across Europe, Canada, Mexico, and the United States in an effort to introduce them to the beauty and value of all cultures as she realized that bigotry and hate are usually learned during childhood.
Also, during this time, in 1948, Thelma divorced her husband Romaine and later married John Edgar Kline, her manager and a playwright and producer of both theatre and film, a year later. The couple had many common interests, the strongest of which were education and fighting intolerance which allowed Thelma to expand her career internationally in this manner.
Together, the couple established Children’s City projects in Hawaii and Canada by founding the Children’s City of Hawaii and the New School of Expression in Punaluu, Oahu, to introduce children to art and the value of cultural diversity. Later in 1956, they opened a second Children’s City school on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, Canada.
Thelma worked tirelessly on her mission to educate and inspire an appreciation across ethnic lives while also continuing her own studies of diverse cultures until she passed away from a heart attack on May 21, 1959. In her lifetime, she was only one of only four African American abstract painters to have solo shows in New York City by 1947, the first American woman to have her own television program in Paris, and the first African American woman to have a painting exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Today, she is remembered and celebrated for her legacy of fostering intercultural understanding and appreciation, having been revolutionary for her time and paving the way for future artists, dancers, activists, and more.