Note: The following Beyond the Margins has been compiled out of excerpts from Intisar Abioto's "Black Mark, Black Legend," first published by Oregon Humanities in 2019. Abioto wrote about the histories of Black artists in Portland as part of a 2018 Oregon Humanities Emerging Journalists, Community Stories Fellowship. Her research continued after the piece was published and led her to curate Black Artists of Oregon, an exhibit at the Portland Art Museum which opened in September 2023 and runs through March, 2024. You can read the entire article here.
I enter this work, Intisar S. Abioto, a Black woman, artist, Southern writer, storyteller, born in the year 1986, working in this world until a year yet to be determined.
I began this work with the deep question and frankly personal need to know who the Black artists were who had worked in this region of Portland, Oregon, in other times beyond my own. It was as personal as it might have been academic. Because I myself was struggling here and I myself needed to know how they had survived, thrived—or if they hadn’t.
I passed through a body of our histories, the body of our presences, knowing that it wouldn’t be just the words I wrote here, but what I did and how I did it that might leave a pathway, something of us lasting. Something worthy of us.
I met Thelma Johnson Streat at the corner of North Killingsworth and Albina around 2013. This is where her story met mine. I was speaking with an older Black gentleman I’d often see at the coffee shop on that corner. I was photographing him for The Black Portlanders, a project I’d started a few months earlier about people of African descent in Portland, when he began to tell me about a Black woman artist, a painter and dancer who had lived in Portland in the 1920s and ’30s.
I looked up Thelma Johnson Streat on the internet that night and was greeted by the black-and-white image of a smiling dark-skinned Black woman, hair parted at the center, smoothed back from her face in a low chignon. Sure, certain eyes gazed back, shoulders squared at a slight angle against the camera’s eye. She looked to be in her early thirties. I read that she had been a painter, textile designer, dancer, and muralist who had found fame and acclaim during her time. In 1942 her painting Rabbit Man was the first work of art by an African American woman procured by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I tucked this information about her away in my mind.
In the five years between when I first heard of Thelma Johnson Streat and the start of this research, I’d not heard her name spoken. In her time, Charlie Chaplin, Langston Hughes, Katherine Dunham, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others were among those who owned her works. I had questions. Why hadn’t I heard of this acclaimed, Northwest-born, Black woman multidisciplinary artist? Why didn’t I, we, know about her? Where were markers about her in Portland? Where was she acknowledged within the histories of American art?
I reached out to the Thelma Johnson Streat Project based in Lake Oswego. Founded by Streat’s family members in the early ’90s in response to the obscurity of her legacy, the Thelma Johnson Streat project aims to educate the public about Streat and her contributions to arts and culture.
Speaking of the project’s beginning, one family member, who declined to be named in this essay, recounts how a man in San Francisco contacted Streat’s sister Juanita to ask her what became of Thelma’s artwork. “That was kind of a catalyst for Juanita to look under the bed, in the closet, and in the garage to check on the paintings. Juanita, her younger sister Lois, their brother Carl, and his daughters (Carlene, Evelyn, and Betty) all got together to inventory the artwork in the hopes of letting people see it again,” she says.
Born in 1911, Thelma Johnson started painting and drawing at the age of seven with the guidance of her father. The family moved from Yakima, Washington, where she was born, to Boise, then Pendleton, before finally settling in Portland. There Streat studied and graduated from Washington High School in 1932. She painted throughout her youth and received community support for her gifts. One of her first major supporters was Portland civil rights advocate and cofounder of the Oregon Chapter of the NAACP Beatrice Morrow Cannady. It was Cannady who recommended Streat for what was to become her first major accomplishment as an artist, an honorable mention at the Harmon Foundation Exhibition. A Priest depicted a priest at Portland’s National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother (known as the Grotto) and was exhibited in New York. This wasn’t the last time Streat received encouragement and support from Cannady. Cannady also hosted an exhibit of Streat’s early works at one of her interracial teas at the Portland YWCA. Early support from those in the community, including the congregation at Portland’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, would be an early foundation and sign of Streat’s later success.
In the mid 1930s, Streat later briefly studied at the Museum School of Portland (later the Pacific Northwest College of Art) and the University of Oregon before moving to San Francisco in 1938 with her first husband. There she was able to work with artist Diego Rivera as one of the few assistants tasked to paint directly on his Pan American Unity mural. Diego later praised Streat, saying, “The work of Thelma Johnson Streat is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting manifestations in this country at the present. It is extremely evolved and sophisticated enough to reconquer the grace and purity of African and American art.”
Her work with Rivera would influence the creative understanding she would develop in her work thereafter. Of the impact Rivera had on Streat, her family member says, she learned two things: “the power of murals and that it’s okay to present your minority culture through that mural, the power of that.” This understanding of the importance of multiculturalism would be present in her works for the rest of her life.
It also became a tool for her to understand how art could have an impact on society. After moving to Chicago in the mid-1940s, Streat began to focus on producing work that could speak to children. She began conceptualizing how art and murals could be used as teaching tools, to teach about the contributions of Black Americans in the United States.
Streat herself continued to seek understanding and knowledgeable appreciation of different cultures. Throughout her life she was known to spend months in a location—Mexico, Ireland, England, Hawaii— painting her way through culture and place. In 1946, Streat traveled to British Columbia to study with the indigenous Haida community. While there, she not only studied the visual culture but learned their dances.
Upon her return to San Francisco, she broke the perceived two-dimensional plane of her work and began dancing in front of her paintings, bringing new dimension to the experience of her work. Streat began to travel extensively with her exhibits and performances. She performed for the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace, Eleanor Roosevelt, and many others.
With the breadth of her accomplishment, it would make sense for Streat to be a well-known figure in the art world today and a lauded figure within the Pacific Northwest. However, after her death, her work and name fell into obscurity. Streat passed away in May 1959 at forty-seven from a heart attack.
In an era predating popular conceptions of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary works, Streat merged the visual arts with dance and movement in profound and innovative ways. She was a forerunner to art forms that we largely might not have witnessed until decades later.
While her work is beginning to again find recognition in the visual arts arena due to dedicated work on the part of her family, her innovation in dance and performing arts has yet to be appropriately included in common archives and curriculums. She is simply not documented within accessible histories of American dance and performance work. If any films of her dance performances have survived, they are yet to be discovered.
If Streat—given all her adventures, works, and lofty supporters—could fall into obscurity, if her artwork could be so easily and quickly lost to our contemporary cultural knowledge and memory, might not mine or others’ of my generation?
Why are Black artists like Streat, [Ray] Eaglin, and others largely unknown, here in Oregon or elsewhere, the memory of their work and presence faded? And is knowing and valuing them now enough? What part of me needs to shift in my voice and practice to produce past these outcomes?
The influence of Oregon’s exclusion laws—which kept Black people from living in the state, owning property, or signing contracts—on the histories and lives of Black artists in Oregon means that Oregon Black arts production and innovation is absent not only from American arts histories, but from national histories and dialogues around Black American arts lineages.
To put it artistically, we were barred from leaving a trace, barred from making our mark. The exclusion laws were repealed in the late 1920s but their legacy continued to bear out through redlining, urban renewal, gentrification, and other tools of excluding and erasing Black presence.
An Oregon Black artistic presence is absent in exhibits, books, retrospectives, and histories, just as Black people were told and made to be absent on the map. And, because we are geographically distant from the rootstock of the Black American South and the many migration tales lead toward north and northeastern centers of Black life—lauded regions of Black life, perseverance, and artistic production—our impact in Oregon is either widely unknown, ill-documented, or deemed culturally insignificant.
Given all of this, what was the Black artistic and creative impulse in Portland, Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest? Where can we find its traces now? If Black life is said to be unable to exist in this space, how did we and do we continue to create and imagine, despite and beyond? And if and when we do produce—and let’s be honest, we have always produced—how have Oregon’s exclusionary histories and practices influenced or made impossible the proper archiving, preservation, exhibition, and knowledge of Black artistic production in Oregon? And beyond the life of the produced artwork, how has exclusion directly influenced the lives, careers, and trajectories of Black artists? Particularly, given Portland’s often self-congratulatory celebration of innovation, creativity, and technology, what has been the counterstory of Black creative life in the region when its expression names and calls out the cracks in the story Oregon tells itself?
The common refrain of no Black presence, a descendant of the exclusion laws, hinders the much needed preservation, ongoing research, and contemporary upliftment of the Black artists who have lived, created, and persisted in Oregon. It leaves Black artistic production unspoken.
The artistic production of Black artists in the region speaks beyond that.
The artwork, this creative ledger, speaks and spells otherwise.
The artwork tells our story even as acknowledged histories haven’t, don’t, or won’t.
We bear our own legend. This is the mark.
And, still, there is so more to uncover.
This, here, only scratches a surface.
Artists in our time, maybe in all of time, can be charged with doing so much. We can charge ourselves with doing so much. This is what we’ve seen our artistic forebears do, our mentors, our greats. We know that there is power and transformation here. For Black artists, we know that art can have a role in caretaking for our communities in the United States and in other environments that have worked to obliterate us. We know that Black art is Black life, the work of Black life.
Sitting with these artists, in ways literal and metaphoric, having to do the hard work of writing these words, gave me something visceral and deep I’d not quite had before, something I would not have had alone. It moved me, made me move myself, shift from creating in my own time into a collective time. Our times. A different stratagem. A different artwork toward our artwork. We are part of a shared continuum with all these other Black artists throughout time, working through love and faith, trial and knowledge, regardless of whether we exist in the same time.And in my own time in Portland, there is a cast of beautiful characters, wanderers, compatriots. This is a community of artists that has shared with me and helped shape me, if not in artistic mediums or in instruction, then in their presence. This swell of Black artists and creatives create in and against the backdrop of this geographic, temporal, and cultural space. Who created before it, despite it, because of it, beyond it, in whatever form that might be imagined.
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