In my last post, I wrote about my serendipitous stumbling onto Hilaire Hiler’s murals and Prismatarium in the Maritime Museum in San Francisco. And just when I thought the highlight of the trip had passed, another surprise was waiting for us. My husband and I wandered through a doorway that led from the lobby to the promenade deck on the beach to get a look at the ocean. We didn’t see Sargent Johnson’s fabulous mosaic gracing the side of the building until we turned to go back into the Bathhouse.
Sargent Claude Johnson was an African American painter, potter, ceramist, print maker, sculptor, artist and visionary. Born in Boston, Johnson lived and worked mostly in the California Bay Area, although he had ties to the Harlem Renaissance. He belonged to the Communist Party for most of his life and he did not complete the Maritime Museum mosaic, reportedly because he objected to plans to turn part of the building into a restaurant which would be out of reach for most working people. He disdained such commercialism and thought that art should be for the masses. Interestingly he was turned down when he first applied for a commission to work on the Bathhouse which was being built as part of a WPA project. He was hired after Hiler vouched for him.
Johnson created his stylized and sophisticated “Sea Forms” mosaic on the Promenade Deck working with a Moroccan tile cutter named Sid Mohammed Diag. The friendly park rangers at the Bathhouse related a few stories about Diag: Diag could cut Arabic letters from tile (do you have any idea how hard that is?). He let his skills speak for him when bureaucrats and visitors to the site questioned his ability to produce precision tile work. (Which apparently happened regularly. Diag was a short, dark foreign looking-man) Diag’s response would be to take a tile, whip out an intricate shape, hand it to the offender, and continue his work without looking up or saying a word.
Thanks to the Smithsonian Institute and its New Deal and the Arts Oral History Project, you can read a transcript of an interview of Johnson recorded in 1964 in which he talks about his career, his art and his work on the mosaic. If you want to listen to the interview, try this link.
I love the Sea Forms varied shades of green and blue green and the pops of red and warm brown. You can’t really see it from these pictures but a few of the tiles were glazed in gold luster. The limitations of my photography plus the 60+ years that these tiles have faced the Pacific Ocean make these areas difficult to see on the computer screen. Even though Johnson has worked with a limited palette and mostly abstract shapes, he succeeds in depicting a beautiful sea fantasy world that is quite different from Hiler’s.
If you are in San Francisco, go to the Maritime Museum and see the work of Hiler, Sergent and other artists who contributed to this little-known National Park treasure.