Lost Olinka

by Holly Wall


One of Oklahoma’s great mysteries, either unknown to or ignored by most of its populace, is what became of a collection of nine murals created for Patti Adams Shriner’s Riverside Music Studio in Tulsa.

The designer of those murals, Olinka Hrdy, is another mystery altogether.

Famed architect Bruce Goff designed the Riverside Studio, which was built in 1929 atop a hill on Riverside Drive near Houston Avenue, facing the Arkansas River. The two-story white stucco structure, which houses the Tulsa Spotlight Theatre—presenter of the 58-year-old melodramas The Drunkard and The Olio, as well as various children’s plays—is one of the city’s favorite architectural gems, the one we point to as a prime example of the Art Deco we pride ourselves on.

The thing we fail to mention is that it once boasted the country’s first example of modern abstract decoration.

Goff designed the studio for Shriner, his music teacher, and commissioned Prague, Oklahoma artist Olinka Hrdy, a student at the University of Oklahoma, to create its décor, a set of murals inspired by musical evolution.

Geometric in pattern and composed of bright, bold colors, 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, where they made a sharp 90-degree turn and continued on for another foot.

The murals were Hrdy’s first foray into abstraction, and they launched her artistic career. Frank Lloyd Wright noted “something good” in them when he invited her to Taliesin East, the summer home he used to educate architecture students.

What became of the murals is a question that has yet to be answered. No one saw them removed from the building, which ceased to be Shriner’s studio in 1933, and they left no paper trail behind. According to the Spotlight Theatre, former New York City actor Richard Mansfield Dickinson purchased the Riverside Studio in 1941 and used it as a residence and speech and drama studio until 1953, when he invited the Tulsa Spotlight Club to give its first performance of The Drunkard.

Olinka Hrdy enjoyed a few years of acclaim before fading into the background. 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 received little historical recognition for her work.

Oklahoma’s first modernist painter, Hrdy was an artist ahead of her time, among the first to exhibit European Bauhaus influences—something that most American artists wouldn’t pick up on for another few years.

She could be the state’s claim to fame—if anyone knew who she was.

Hrdy may have been more at home in Bohemian Prague. In Seminole County Prague, a small Czech community lost below and between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, where they say it “PRAY-gue,” not “PRAH-gue”—she was all but lost.

Signs along Highway 99 don’t point to Prague; rather, they direct drivers to the National Shrine of the Infant Jesus, a statue that sits outside the Saint Wenceslaus Catholic Church, whose history is said to date back 400 years. A tiny “Welcome to Prague” sign greets drivers in either direction.

Downtown is about a mile and a half past the sign, where most of the city’s history is situated on streets called “Klabzuba,” and “Barta,” and “Mitacek.” Just a couple miles south of downtown is the Czech National Cemetery, where Hrdy, her parents and her brothers are buried.

Czechoslovakian immigrants settled Prague during the Land Run of 1891, when the Sac and Fox reservation was opened for settlement. The town’s pioneers named it “Praha,” after the capital city of their homeland, but intentionally mispronounced its English name, Prague, replacing the short “a” sound with a long one, because they thought it sounded more American.

Olinka (Czech for “Olive”) Hrdy was born there in a one-room sod hut in 1902, the same year Prague was incorporated, on August 7 to Josef and Emma Hrdy. She had one older brother, Carl, and a younger one named George. Her second cousin, Edward Benes, was the second president of Czechoslovakia.

The Hrdy parents divorced when Olinka was 16, and research indicates that the artist fell out of touch with her father around the time she left Prague to attend college. Available correspondence suggests Hrdy wasn’t close to her family. Little is known about her father or her ex-husband, Ray Claire Tracy, to whom she was only married a couple of years.

In Prague’s Czech National Cemetery, Emma, Carl, and Olinka are each buried beneath large slabs of marble that lie side by side behind the family headstone. A few feet away, George and his wife, Edna Mae Lester Hrdy, share a small plat of land. Somewhere in between, the Hrdy patriarch rests alone.

Newspaper clippings from the 1920s and ‘30s describe Hrdy as petite, with dark features and a soft voice. Folks from her hometown define her as “different” and “a loner.”

“Everyone here knows Olinka,” said Diana Kinzey, who works at the Prague Historical Museum and has lived in the town all her life. “She was an artist ahead of her time. She was a flower child before there were flower children, if you know what I mean.”

On the wall of her Hester Hall dorm room at OU, Hrdy painted three nude figures, and though she was nearly expelled over the incident, she didn’t do it to agitate administrators; rather, she did it to ward off potential roommates. She succeeded, but the mural was painted over after she graduated.

Kinzey said the folks of Prague are proud to claim Olinka, and points to a wall in the museum dedicated to Hrdy’s life and work as evidence. The wall, 12 feet tall and equally wide, is crammed from corner to middle with Hrdy’s paintings and drawings. The other half is dotted with work by other artists from Prague, lesser known than Hrdy but appreciated nonetheless.

Still, Hrdy’s wall of fame isn’t quite as big as Jim Thorpe’s, who was born in Prague in 1888 (Yale, Oklahoma, also claims the athlete, who lived there from about 1917-23), and there’s no street named for Hrdy. But Highway 99 turns into Jim Thorpe Boulevard about a mile into town. Though folks in Prague liked Hrdy and seem curious about her pictures, it’s obvious most of them don’t really relate to her. They use the words “avant-garde” to describe her work, but blank stares wash over their faces when they gaze at one of her paintings.

“This work has always puzzled me, because I don’t know if I’ve got it hung right,” Kinzey said, pointing to a pencil drawing.

Prague’s pride is its annual Kolache Festival, held on the first Saturday in May, when upwards of 30,000 people descend on the small town in celebration of Oklahoma redneck culture and old-world Czech heritage.

A kolache is a traditional Czech pastry made from yeast, butter, and sugar and filled with fruit, cream cheese or poppy seeds. It resembles a halved biscuit with a spread of preserves on top, but authentic kolaches are no such thing, says Sharon Capron, associate minister at Prague United Methodist Church, which recruited 40 parishioners to make 12,000 kolaches over a four-day period. The church uses proceeds from its sales—a dozen kolaches costs $9—to fund its women’s ministry.

The passively accusatory way Capron says, “A biscuit and canned fruit just won’t cut it,” leads one to wonder if some of the other five kolache peddlers, who will altogether sell about 50,000 kolaches at the festival, use those ingredients in their recipes.

The Kolache Festival also features “Kolache Queen” and “Kolache Court” crowning, a parade, plenty of polka dancers, a kolache-eating contest, fireworks and local music.

With the exception of the kolaches and polka, the festival is reminiscent of a small-scale state fair, with fried-food vendors and beer tents lining Prague’s Main Street, and an “arts and crafts fair” that is more dollar- store crap than it is art or craft. The few handmade pieces of art that were for sale—some textile art, a bit of jewelry and molded copper flowers—went largely ignored by an audience more bent on cheap plastic jewelry and bedazzled flip flops.

Noticeably absent were examples of the Czech craft that that first led Hrdy to art. Kinzey said few women in Prague still practice traditional Czech embroidery, making it virtually extinct in the small town.

Hrdy was prolific in her practice of the craft. When she enrolled in the University of Oklahoma in 1923, her experience with embroidery, along with a “might as well” attitude, steered her toward the domestic arts department, where she figured she’d take up sewing.

She grew bored with the department, though, and shifted her focus to art after her first semester.

Hrdy says she arrived at the university with only $50. An instructor in the School of Creative Design, Edith Mayer, took pity on her and invited her to paint a mural in one of the offices, an illustration of a poem called “Maker of Dreams.”

Other professors took an interest in her as well, commissioning her work on a series of 20 panels, which she titled “The Pageant of Foods,” separating the two dining rooms in the women’s dormitories. The panels exhibited people and animals of the world bringing food to a king and queen who occupy the mural’s center. One panel featured a nude figure with shrimp and lobster blending to foliage in its background; another offered a jungle scene with savages bearing bananas; in another was a Chinese emperor; another, a black slave stealing watermelons. Newspapers in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and seemingly everywhere in between published articles touting Hrdy’s talent, marveling at how she painted her way through college, exchanging her art for tuition and board.

Bruce Goff and his wife, Evelyn, who were honeymooning in Norman, tracked Hrdy down during her senior year after admiring her work on the dining hall panels.

Hrdy told Betty Hoag during an interview for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art in 1965: “Bruce was the only man among about 1,500 girls, so he felt very ill at ease until he looked down and saw these dormitory doors, and he said for his seat to be changed so he could view them and take a good look at them.

“After lunch he said, ‘We must meet this person immediately,’” Hrdy relayed to Hoag.

Goff met Hrdy and invited her to paint murals inside the building he was designing in Tulsa.

“That was quite a thing to have happen in my very last year,” Hrdy said.

The Tulsa Spotlight Theatre website describes a “contest of wills between two strong-willed prima donnas” that occurred during the painting of the Riverside Studio murals: “Though she had approved (the murals’) selection, Shriner hated the colors as they were applied. A confrontation resulted, with the piano teacher accusing the painter of ruining her studio by using green on the walls, the color of jealousy and envy, and red, the color of passion and hate.”

The painter replied, “There is only one color you should use.”

“What is that?” said Shriner.

“White,” declared Hrdy. “White is the color of insanity.”

The site says Hrdy got the last laugh.

Shriner, who taught classical music, was adamant that no allusions to the increasingly popular jazz genre be included, but one of Hrdy’s murals, which was composed of small triangles of various colors, when photographed in black and white, spelled the word “jazz.”

“(The murals are) experiments in space and color, and they form an end in themselves, ” Mark White, a curator for Norman’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, said. “They’re not devoid of meaning, but she’s not starting out with a subject in mind; the painting is the subject.”

Though her earlier work was largely representational and exhibited an Asian influence, the murals she painted inside Shriner’s Riverside studio bent her art in the direction of abstraction.

“They largely become a pattern, and the pattern is largely art deco,” White said. “In art deco, she’s digesting some influences from Cubism, Futurism—a lot of European modern styles that hadn’t really come to the U.S. yet. At that point, her work begins to get innovative.”

In a December 1929 issue of The Western Architect, Goff calls Hrdy’s murals “among the first adventures in abstract decoration in America.”

Hrdy began working with some formal ideas and techniques from Bauhaus, Walter Gropius’ Nazi-era German art school, which meshed fine arts with craft and encouraged radical experimentation.

“Bauhaus influence doesn’t tend to really reach the U.S. before the mid-1930s, and yet you see it appearing in her work in the early 1930s, years before,” White said. “How that comes into her work is hard to say, but you begin to see it.”

Hrdy developed her style and influence on her own, without training or direction from other modernist painters. Goff introduced her to abstraction but, after that, she forged her own way.

“Goff gives her a push into modernist painting, and she takes it and runs with it,” White said.

The pair collaborated again in 1930 when Goff was asked to redesign the interior Tulsa’s ugly and outdated Convention Hall—the historic structure now known as the Brady Theater—and 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.

Still, Hrdy didn’t sell much work during her lifetime. The market she was in didn’t support it, and much of it was considered decoration, rather than art. That she was a woman and from Oklahoma didn’t help.

“That type of abstract art in the 1920s and ’30s was not going to play well in places like Oklahoma, 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,” White said.

“And she sort of lagged in scholarly attention. It takes some time for people to realize just how important what she did in Oklahoma really is.”

Hrdy died in 1987 in the home her mother built on Barta Avenue sometime in the 1950s. There was no controversy about her death. She was 85; it was old age. She spent her last 20 years in Prague, a local “celebrity” who pretty much kept to herself, and though she likely still painted—she kept a small studio in the back of her mother’s house—little of that work survived, and, if it did, it was never boasted about the way her earlier stuff was.

Hrdy stopped producing really significant work after about 1950. Though she attempted a couple of drip paintings that might be considered vaguely reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, the work seemed outdated, White said, and she never really progressed past the Bauhaus movement.

She gifted the majority of her work to OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum in 1964, but nearly half of her total output has been lost or destroyed, White said.

In Prague, there are still lingering hints of Hrdy’s existence: the home where she died; her work on display at the historical museum; her gravestone, inscribed with a poem by Acel Garland. But there are no historical markers in her honor. No one travels to Prague to see the place where Olinka Hrdy was born, or where she painted her first landscape, or where she died. The Prague Historical Museum doesn’t sell Olinka Hrdy memorabilia; there are no buildings bearing her name. And Prague’s teenagers—the dozen or so asked at the Kolache Festival—have no idea who she is.

All but two of Hrdy’s murals—one at Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. in Oklahoma City, which used to be Central High School, and one at Will Rogers Middle School in Long Beach, Calif.—have been destroyed. The whereabouts of the Riverside Studio murals are unknown. The assumption is that they were destroyed, but there’s no record of it.

“No one knows what happened to the Riverside murals,” White said. “That was one of our frustrations when we were putting the (Oklahoma Moderne) exhibition together. Rumor had been that the murals were rolled up and stored somewhere in Holland Hall, which had owned the building at some point—I think in the 1930s they were given the building—but that never really panned out.”

Members of the Tulsa Spotlight Theatre have quested for 25 years for the murals, to no avail. Folks at Holland Hall, which held classes at the Riverside Studio from 1932-38 during the construction of a new facility, deny ever owning the murals or knowing their whereabouts. A newspaper article from Hrdy’s personal papers and archived with the Smithsonian Institution asserts that the murals were placed in Philbrook Museum of Art’s permanent collection, but that information wasn’t true. The clipping, titled “Well-Known Artist Visits Home Town,” lacks a publication name or date, but it was likely printed sometime in 1948, when Hrdy visited family in Oklahoma.

In a 1975 Tulsa World article, writer Yvonne Litchfield paraphrases the artist’s grief over her ill-fated murals: “They are gone and no one even remembers them, she said.”

In an effort to preserve some of their history, the Spotlight Theatre had eight of the murals replicated, at about half of their original size, and they hang in the performance hall most nights that it’s open.

The ninth mural, a stylized nude titled “Symphony of the Arts,” which hung in the studio’s foyer, wasn’t reproduced because it couldn’t be positioned in its original location.

Though a 1948 article in The Daily Oklahoman claimed the murals were still hanging in the studio that year, whether or not that information was verified is unknown, and Stockard says he suspects they went missing sometime between 1932 and 1941, when the building sat empty. He isn’t convinced there’s malice behind their disappearance; rather, he suspects old age and deterioration caused someone to roll them up and throw them in the trash.

Or, perhaps, store them in some unknown attic or basement.

“If they’re out there somewhere, no one knows where they are,” White said.