Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Olinka Hrdy: Abstract Painter and Muralist

Olinka Hrdy
Olinka Hrdy exemplifies the female artist who was not only well-known during her lifetime, but worked extensively and was respected by major artists and architects of the day. She was a risk-taker and an artist who worked in a genre that was not mainstream in her native Oklahoma. Hrdy's star has, unfortunately, faded into near obscurity.

Olinka Hrdy is one of Oklahoma's first modern artists. She was born in 1902 near a small Czechoslovakian settlement in Prague, Oklahoma, fifty-three miles east of Oklahoma City. She considered herself a 'soddy,' that is one who was born and grew up in a sod house, a successor to the log cabin found during frontier settlement in Canada and the United States. Olinka, Czech for "Olive," was of Czechoslovakian descent. After her parents divorced, she and her mother worked a large Indian lease which is land owned by Native Americans but leased to whites for agriculture. They tilled several hundred acres on their own. She remained there until she left to attend the University of Oklahoma.

Hrdy was a talented crafts woman and earned additional money throughout high school doing embroidery, a traditional Czech art. With only fifty dollars to see her through the entirety of her schooling at the University of Oklahoma, she originally enrolled in the domestic art department, but within weeks was doing so well that she was made a student instructor. Since Hrdy became bored in a craft with which she already excelled, she decided to enroll in the art department the following year. When her instructors found that she had no funds to buy supplies or clothing and recognizing her talent, they arranged for her to work on a mural in one of their offices based on a poem entitled, "Maker of Dreams." 

Olinka Hrdy
Development of the Body
Oklahoma City University Law School
South Wall
Although Hrdy wanted to continue her studies, lack of money was a critical issue. Befriended by the faculty, another of her professors arranged again for her to work on painting a series of twenty doors measuring two by sixteen feet at the state dormitories for women at the campus of the university which covered her room and board for the year. The doors were eventually removed and relocated to a museum in Tulsa Oklahoma.

Hrdy produced murals for architect Bruce Goff's Riverside Studio in Tulsa. Goff designed the studio for his music teacher and commissioned Hrdy, a student at the University of Oklahoma,to create murals for the walls. The murals signified various forms of music: primitive, vocal, piano, symphonic, choral, string, and modern. Five feet wide and 13 feet long, the paintings decorated the studio’s recital hall, situated above the air vents and running the length of the wall until they met the ceiling. As you can see from the above image, the murals were an experiment in composition and color.
Olinka Hrdy
Painting a mural in Goff's Studio
Tulsa, Oklahoma
Architect and artist Frank Lloyd Wright was also a fan of her work and he invited her to paint murals in Taliesin East in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

A prolific artist from the 1920s to the 1960s, Hrdy is not particularly well-known in the art world today.  Few of her sketches, small paintings, and graphic design work remain, and most are held in collections by the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, Oklahoma. Olinka Hrdy enjoyed a few years of acclaim before fading her renown faded. She worked as an industrial designer after World War II, diagramming blueprints for radios and radio cabinets, waste baskets, clothes hampers, and even the interior of a private airplane, but she has received little historical recognition for her work. A retrospective of her work was mounted three years ago at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum in Norman which exposed new generations to the beauty of her style. 
Catalogue for Hrdy Oklahoma Moderne Exhibition
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art
ca. 2013
University of Oklahoma, Norman Oklahoma
In addition, Hrdy didn’t sell much work during her lifetime. The market in which she worked didn’t support her style of art, and much of it was considered decoration, rather than fine art. Her gender and being from Oklahoma also seemed to create obstacles in her work. Hrdy and Goff collaborated again in 1930 when Goff was asked to redesign the interior Tulsa’s unattractive and outdated Convention Hall—the historic structure now known as the Brady Theater. Goff asked Hrdy to design a 50-foot long asbestos fire curtain for the stage and a mural for the entrance. Both of these works have either disappeared or been destroyed, but, at the time, they solidified Hrdy’s understanding of abstraction and her position as a modern artist.
“That type of abstract art in the 1920s and ’30s was not going to play well in places like Oklahoma, nor even in Chicago, and L.A., and she spent the majority of her career in California. It isn’t until the post-WWII period that the type of abstraction she’s producing has an audience in those areas states Mark White, curator of Norman, Oklahoma's Fred Jones Jr.'s Museum of Art. 
Olinka Hrdy
Good Earth
ca. 1938
11 3/4 x 16.5 inches
Illinois State Museum Collection
The fact that Hrdy has lagged in scholarly attention has hurt her reputation as well-yet, she was innovative, creative, and forward-thinking in terms of her art and design. An in-depth exploration of her life and work will certainly expose how important the work she created, especially during her years in Oklahoma, really is.
Olinka Hrdy passed away at the age of 85 years old. She spent the last twenty years of her life back in Prague, Oklahoma, enjoying local celebrity status but creating little artwork. Tragically, few pieces of her work remain, or have yet to be brought forward if it is in the hands of private collectors, that Hrdy seems to be an enigma-waiting to be rediscovered.
Olinka HrdyDevelopment of the Mind Mural
Oklahoma City University Law School
North Wall
Olinka Hrdy
Deep Sea Magic
ca. 1939
Long Beach School District

Oral History with Olinka Hrdy, 1965, Betty Hoag, interviewer, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-olinka-hrdy-12581, retrieved 9/1/16.
This Land, Lost Olinka, Holly Wall,  http://thislandpress.com/2011/09/20/lost-olinka/, retrieved 9/2/16.
Splurge Magazine, OKC, http://splurgeokc.com/olinka-hrdy/, retrieved 9/6/2016.
Design Matters, https://fsb-ae-blog.com/2014/09/16/divergent-view-3/, retrieved 9/6/16
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman Oklahoma, http://www.ou.edu/content/fjjma/visit.html