Sargent Johnson was best known as a modernist sculptor, influenced by the cultures of Mexico, Latin America, and West Africa. Born in 1888, to a father of Swedish descent and a mother of Cherokee and African American heritage, Johnson and his siblings could have passed for white, but he remained firmly aligned with his African American heritage. In fact, the aim of his art was, according to him, to show African Americans how beautiful they were to themselves. Johnson was orphaned at an early age and sent to live with an uncle, whose wife , May Howard Jackson, happened to be a well-known sculptor of African American portrait busts.
He received his first formal art training at the Worcester Art School in Boston, later relocating to the West Coast in 1915, where he studied at the A.W. Best School of Art and the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. He studied with Ralph Stackpole, as well as Benjamin Bufano, whose work influenced his artistic output greatly in the 1920’s. At this time, Johnson’s work consisted of small scale ceramic heads, primarily of children. He became a regular exhibitor in the Harmon Foundation exhibitions between 1926 to 1935.
Johnson’s creative output increased dramatically in the 1930’s. He experimented with a variety of material including terra cotta, wood, beaten copper, marble, terrazzo, and porcelain. He also produced prints and gouache drawings. He was employed by the California WPA, eventually becoming a supervisor, where his work took on a monumental scale. He created public sculptures such as a carved redwood organ screen for the California School of the Blind, and exterior low relief friezes and mosaic decorations for the San Francisco Maritime Museum. Johnson also created sculptures for the Golden Gate International Exposition held in 1939 on Treasure Island.
In 1944 and 1949 he traveled to Mexico using funds from the Abraham Rosenberg Scholarship, where he studied the culture, ceramics, and sculpture of the region. While still incorporating the geometric shapes and motifs of indigenous peoples, his work became increasingly more abstract until his death in 1967.
In 1970, the Oakland Museum organized the first retrospective of his work, and in 1998, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held the exhibtion, Sargent Johnson: African American Modernist. His work may be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.