A member of the dynamic San Francisco Bay Area arts community during the second half of the twentieth century, Marie Edwards Johnson Calloway often drew on her childhood in the upper South as subject matter for her paintings and mixed media collages. For more than five decades, Johnson Calloway pursued her own ever-evolving practice while teaching in a wide range of settings, actively participating in the Civil Rights Movement, and fostering professional opportunities for minority artists.

Born in the Pimlico neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, Marie Edwards grew up in a household that valued education. She attended the city’s historic Frederick Douglass High School and received her teaching certificate from Coppin Teachers College. After working in the local school system for a number of years, she graduated from Morgan State College with a bachelor’s degree in 1952; it was there that Johnson Calloway met Samella Lewis, who would become a lifelong friend and colleague. Following her family’s eventual relocation to San Jose, California, in 1954, she became the city’s first African American public school teacher. Johnson Calloway went on to earn an MFA at San Jose State University in 1968 and pursued doctoral studies at Stanford University and San Francisco State University. She was a part-time professor at both the California College of Arts and Crafts and San Jose State until 1973 when she received a full-time faculty appointment at San Francisco State, a position she held up to her retirement in 1983.

Interested in art from an early age, Johnson Calloway recalled using whatever was at hand to “make it say something, make it do something.” Such resourcefulness served her well when she lived on an Air Force base in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1952. To alleviate cabin fever through the long months of bitter cold, she used random materials to produce art—a tactic she returned to later in her career. As her passion advanced, she initially focused on abstraction, adopting a colorful, lyrical style she believed best expressed her deep “reverence for nature” and spirituality.

Soon after moving to San Jose, Johnson Calloway was one of the founders of the San Jose branch of the NAACP and served as its president. Her steady involvement in the Civil Rights Movement led her to participate in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 march in Selma, where she was arrested and briefly jailed. This experience, combined with her progressive political views, triggered an aesthetic shift: “When I came back [from Selma], I felt as though the abstract work had to go on hold. So I started painting my world around me.” What began as realistic figural paintings grew to include three-dimensional, life-size sculptural assemblages depicting actual people from Johnson Calloway’s past along with anonymous African Americans. Unable to separate her art from her life, she sought to “look beneath the misconceptions with which history had covered my people and me.”

Such works were included in important solo and group exhibitions in California, as well as the Studio Museum in Harlem. Johnson Calloway’s friendship with artist Betye Saar was a meaningful influence on her creative evolution, as did her work with Art West Associated North, an advocacy group that “protested the exclusion of African American artists from local museums and galleries.” In recognition of her distinguished career and service on its board of directors, the Women’s Caucus for Arts presented Johnson Calloway a lifetime achievement award in 2001.