Sargent Johnson

Sargent Claude Johnson (1888–1967) was one of the first Californian African-American artists to achieve a national reputation. He was known for Abstract Figurative and Early Modern styles. He was a painter, potter, ceramist, printmaker, graphic artist, sculptor, and carver. He worked with a variety of media, including ceramic, clay, oil, stone, terra-cotta, watercolor, and wood. He was in the Communist Party for most of his life.

Sargent Johnson was the third of six children, born to a father of Swedish descent and mother of African American and Cherokee ancestry. They were orphaned at a young age and went to live with their uncle, Sherman Jackson Williams and his wife, May Howard Jackson. May was a famous black sculptress specializing in negro themes and undoubtedly she influenced Sargent Johnson at an early age.
In 1915, Sargent Johnson moved to the San Francisco Bay area. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which had an influence on the California art movement, took place shortly after his move. The same year, Sargent Johnson married Pearl Lawson and began studying at the A. W. Best School of Art. He attended the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) from 1919 to 1923, where his teachers included the sculptors Beniamino Bufano and Ralph Stackpole.

Sargent Johnson began showing his work with the Harmon Foundation of New York in 1926. Through this distinguished foundation that supported African American art, he exhibited many of his pieces and became locally and then nationally known. He won numerous awards during his time with the Harmon Foundation. In the late 1930s, Sargent Johnson commissioned his work with the Federal Arts Project (FAP). As a member of the bohemian San Francisco Bay community and influenced by the New Negro Movement, Sargent Johnson’s early work focused on racial identity. According to Johnson, “Negroes are a colorful race; they call for an art as colorful as they can be made.” Beginning in 1945, and continuing through 1965, Sargent Johnson made a number of trips to Oaxaca and Southern Mexico and started incorporating the people and culture, particularly archeology, into his work. Other subjects included African American figures, animals, and Native Americans.