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Sargent Claude Johnson was from Boston, the third of six children born to Anderson, who was Swedish, and Lizzie Jackson, Black and Native American (Cherokee). Racial problems and illness resulted in a troubled marriage. Some of the mixed-race Johnson children were accepted as Indian or white and lived their lives as such. Sargent Johnson, however, chose to live as 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 Black sculptor, May Howard Jackson, in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Jackson maintained a studio in Washington and specialized in portrait busts reflecting Black themes. In later years, she participated in some of the same exhibitions as her nephew, Sargent. Undoubtedly the sculptor influenced Sargent at an early age. 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 Worchester, MA, 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 greenhouse while he was ill. He was sent to Boston to attend music school but soon gave that up in favor of art. Johnson lived for a while with relatives in Chicago, who was not favorably impressed by this decision to be an artist and he soon left there for the West.
Johnson arrived in San Francisco in 1915 at the time of the Panama Pacific International Exposition, which had a profound influence on the California art movement. Later that year he married Pearl Lawson, a Georgia woman 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 for 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. From 1919 to 1923, and from 1940 to 1942, he attended the California School of Fine Arts. He first studied under the sculptor Ralph Stackpole for two years and then one year with Beniamino Bufano. 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.
Johnson and his wife separated in 1936. Pearl Adele, his 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.
His piece, Elizabeth Gee, was later shown in the 1928 Harmon Foundation exhibit. Elizabeth was a neighbor's child, as were several of his models. Johnson's work was added in Harmon Foundation exhibits from 1926 to 1935. Johnson was at his highest peak stylistically during the Harlem Renaissance era that coincided with the Harmon Foundation Exhibitions. His works became nationally and internationally known through the sales and shows of this organization.
Most of his 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. Johnson 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.
In the San Francisco Art Association exhibition Johnson received awards in 1925 for Pearl; in 1931 for his terra cotta head entitled Chester; in 1935 for his sculpture Forever Free; and in 1938 for his lithograph Black and White. In 1939, the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery acquired his terra cotta head Ester. In the mid-1930s, the San Francisco Museum of Art acquired the collection of the local philanthropist, Albert M. Bender that included a number of works by Johnson. From 1925 to 1933, Johnson established a studio in his backyard in Berkeley at 2777 Park Street; he worked there evenings in his spare time. He worked in wood, ceramics, oils, watercolors, and graphics with equal facility. In 1935, Johnson was employed by 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.
He was influenced by a piece of music written by William Grant Still and Still was influenced by his piece Forever Free. This 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 arts in the area. During these early years, Johnson was a member of the San Francisco Art Association in 1932, and of its Council Board in 1934. He served on the tile jury of tile S. F. A. A. annuals in 1936, 38, 40, 42, 47, and 48.
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. The San Francisco Art Commission in 1940 also gave Johnson a project at San Francisco’s Washington High School. This tremendous frieze, executed in 1942, covers the entire retaining wall across the back of the football field, and still stands 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 of African and Afro-American subjects, especially African Art, was another of his favorite pastimes. Johnson received the Abraham Rosenberg Scholarship in 1944 and again in 1949 that 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 grotesque and interesting Black clay figures. This is a very low-fired clay, using a wood reduction firing process that creates the Black smoky color of the clay body. Johnson would polish and burnish his pieces with pumice before firing. Most were hollow forms. A favorite theme of his for these pieces is the Politician, the do-nothing politician was a recurring theme of his.
A number are of Indian women, the family, and some are abstract forms. He produced from 1947 to 1967 about 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. Johnson died on October 10, 1967, in San Francisco, California after suffering a heart attack. He had been afflicted by severe angina pectoris for over twenty years.
The St. James Guide to Black Artist
Edited by Thomas Riggs
Copyright 1997, St. James Press, Detroit, MI