"It is the pure American Negro I am concerned with, aiming to show the natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip and that characteristic hair, bearing and manner; and I wish to show that beauty not so much to the white man as to the Negro himself." — Sargent Johnson quoted in San Francisco Chronicle, Sargent Johnson: Retrospective (Oakland: The Oakland Museum Art Division Special Gallery, 1971), 17.
Born in Boston on October 7, 1887, Sargent Johnson was the third of six children of Anderson and Lizzie Jackson Johnson. Anderson Johnson was of Swedish ancestry, and his wife was Cherokee and African American. All of the children were fair enough in complexion to be considered white, and several of Johnson's sisters preferred to live in white society. Sargent, however, was insistent upon identifying with his African-American heritage throughout his life.
The Johnson children were orphaned by the deaths of their father in 1897 and their mother in 1902. The children spent their early years in Washington, D.C., with an uncle, Sherman William Jackson, a high school principal whose wife was May Howard Jackson, a noted sculptress who specialized in portrait busts of African Americans. It was probably while young Sargent was living with his aunt that he developed his earliest interest in sculpture.
After living in the Jackson home in Washington, the young Johnson children were sent to live with their maternal grandparents in Alexandria, Virginia. From there they were sent to boarding schools. The boys went to the Sisters of Charity in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the girls to a Catholic school in Pennsylvania for Indian and African-American girls. While at the Sisters of Charity, Sargent was sent to a public school where he studied music, art, and mechanical drawing. He was later sent to Boston to music school, but soon became more interested in art. He enrolled in the Worcester Art School where he received his first formal art training. From Boston, Johnson went to Chicago where he lived with relatives for a brief time before deciding to move to the West Coast. Johnson arrived in the San Francisco area in 1915, during the time of the Panama Pacific International Exposition, which impressed him greatly.
The same year Johnson arrived in San Francisco, he met and married PearlLawson, an African American from Georgia who had moved to the Bay Area. The couple had one child, Pearl Adele, who was born in 1923. The couple separated in 1936 and shortly afterwards Mrs. Johnson was hospitalized at Stockton State Hospital, where she died in 1964.
Johnson worked at various jobs during his first years in San Francisco but also attended two art schools, the A. W. Best School of Art and the California School of Fine Arts. Johnson was enrolled at the latter school from 1919 to 1923 and from 1940 to 1942. He studied first under the well-known sculptor Ralph Stackpole for two years, and for a year with Beniamino Bufano. Johnson's student work at the California School of Fine Arts was awarded first prizes in 1921 and 1922.
In 1925 Johnson came to the attention of the Harmon Foundation. During the following year he began exhibiting in the foundation's exhibitions and was represented regularly from 1926 to 1935. Johnson won numerous awards in the Harmon Foundation shows, including the Robert C. Ogden prize in 1933 for the most outstanding work in the exhibition. In 1930 and 1931, the Harmon exhibition was shown at the Oakland Municipal Art Gallery and Johnson was represented in both shows, and was the only California artist to be included. Johnson's works of the 1920s consisted primarily of small, smoothly finished ceramic heads that were primarily of children and were greatly influenced by the style of Bufano.
The 1930s were the most productive decade in Johnson's career. His figure style retained the basic simplicity of his earlier works. He became more interested, however, in stylization of forms and experimented with a variety of mediums—terra cotta, wood, beaten copper, marble, terrazzo, porcelain, etchings, and gouache drawings. Johnson's earliest interest in African art became manifest around 1930 when he executed several copper masks based on African prototypes.
The W.P.A. Federal Art Project provided a number of opportunities for Johnson during the late 1930s in the Bay Area. Johnson's first large W.P.A. project was an organ screen carved of redwood in low relief for the California School of the Blind in Berkeley. The eighteen-by-twenty-four-foot panel was completed in 1937 and installed in the school's chapel. In 1939 he undertook another W.P.A. project, decorating the interior of the San Francisco Maritime Museum in Aquatic Park.
For the Golden Gate International Exposition held on the newly created Treasure Island in San Francisco in 1939, Johnson completed his largest figures. He designed two eight-foot-high cast stone figures, which were displayed around the fountain in the Court of Pacifica. Johnson's figures depict two Incas seated on llamas and are distinctly East Indian in inspiration. They are known as the "happy Incas playing the Piper of Pan," and are among Johnson's finest works. He also designed three figures symbolizing industry, home life, and agriculture for the Alameda-Contra Costa Building at the Exposition.
A final group of works from Johnson's mature period was an animal series depicting a camel, burro, grasshopper, duck, hippopotamus, and squirrel. Each of the figures was twenty-six-by-twenty-four inches and cast in gray and green terrazzo. These animals were part of a project for a child-care center playground in San Francisco, and comprise some of Johnson's most delightful works.
One of Johnson's favorite activities during the late 1950s and 1960s was collecting diorite rocks from the seashore near Big Sur, California. Diorite became one of Johnson's preferred materials in addition to cast stone and terra cotta. Johnson's last sculptures, completed in 1965 and 1966, were made of diorite and displayed a completely abstract style and simplicity.
Johnson moved a number of times in the final fifteen years of his life. Following an illness in 1965, Johnson finally settled in a small hotel room in downtown San Francisco. In October 1967 Johnson died there of a heart attack. During his long and distinguished career he never ceased to grow as an artist and to keep abreast of contemporary techniques. His works were influenced by Cubism as well as the art of West Africa, Latin America, and Mexico. Gifted with the remarkable ability to combine those influences with his own style, Johnson created sculpture that reflects his own vitality and originality.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)
Sargent Johnson’s first contact with art was through his aunt, the sculptor May Howard Jackson, who looked after him when he was young. Johnson’s father was of Swedish ancestry and his mother was part Cherokee and part African American. While his brothers and sisters chose to be recognized as Native Americans or Caucasians, Sargent decided to live his life as a black man. He was orphaned in 1902 and lived in many different places before settling in North Beach, California. He created work for the Harmon Foundation, which supported African American art, and was also active in the Federal Art Project of the New Deal in the 1930s. Johnson’s expressive sculptures in wood, terra-cotta, and clay explored his belief that “The Negroes are a colorful race; they call for an art as colorful as … can be made.”