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Orpha Klinker: History on Canvas, Paper, and Platter

General Sherman Tree Commemorative Plate, 1946-1950
Made by Vernon Kilns; Designed by Orpha Klinker (American, 1891-1964); Text by Harrye Forbes (American, 1861-1951)
Fired ceramic; 10 in.
Evylena Nunn Miller Memorial Collection

California Legacies

History is all around us: the buildings that we inhabit, work, and shop in; the roads we drive; the water we drink. All of these things and more offer hints into the past for those who are interested in learning where we have come from. Orpha Klinker, a Californian painter, illustrator, and print maker working in the early to mid 20th century was keenly aware of this. Everywhere that she went, she was drawn to the stories of how it came to be and over the course of her career, made it her mission to share these stories through her art. This post explores her life, artworks in the Bowers’ collections, and larger relationship with history and the Bowers.

Orpha Klinker, date unknown

On the Trail

Orpha Mae Klinker was born in Fairfield, Iowa in 1892 and moved first to northern and later southern California with her family at a young age. Their longitudinal journey through the Golden State was a defining moment in Orpha Klinker’s life as it was made via covered wagon, much in the same way as the droves of American settlers heading to the west coast during the 19th century would have done. Upon enrolling in school in Los Angeles two things became patently clear: the first is that something about the journey had instilled a life-long fascination with the West and history in her, the second is that she was a talented artist. Well before graduating from grade school, Orpha began working for the May Company as an illustrator, drawing products for advertisements in newspapers and magazines. She formally studied first in Los Angeles at the UCLA Art School, Cannon Art School, and under masters of California plein air and scene painting such as Anna Althea Hills and Paul Lauritz before heading to Paris to study at the Académies Julian and Colarossi.

Charles C. Chapman, 1940
Orpha Klinker (American, 1891-1964)
Pastel on paper; 26 1/2 x 31 in.
Gift of the Artist

Cache For Klinkers

The Bowers Museum’s permanent collection is host to twenty objects made in some part by Klinker, each of which speaks to Klinker’s many interests. Of these pieces, two are books written by Ed Ainsworth, an editor for the Los Angeles Times and frequent author on subjects pertaining to California and the American West; four are commemorative plates designed by Klinker in collaboration with Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes and Vernon Kilns for the occasion of California’s centennial in 1949; six are pastel drawings of members of Orange County’s notable families—Charles Chapman and descendants of Juan Pablo Peralta, Don Jose Sepulveda, and more; five are etchings, mostly of various Southern California scenes; and the remaining two are a painting of the Peralta Adobe and a silhouette of an unidentified woman.

Casa Avila Adobe, Olvera Street, 1930-1950
Orpha Klinker (American, 1891-1964)
Ink etching on paper; 8 × 10 1/8 in.
In Memory of Orlene Klinker-Bowers

History and Legacy

Though Klinker’s oeuvre features a variety of subjects, there is almost always some historical basis. One of the first major undertakings by Klinker was a recurring column in the Los Angeles Times titled, “Speaking of Pioneers,” in which she would write a short bio about an early California pioneer, accompanied with a portrait she painted of them. During her lifetime, she became recognized as an expert on early California history and later in her career she wrote and lectured on this theme. In 1939, her design for the official insignia of LA County was chosen by the Board of Supervisors, and remained in use until it was redesigned in 1957. Alongside her more commercial art endeavors, Orpha Klinker was a tireless force in the Los Angeles arts scene. She held the title of President of the Women Painters of the West and Vice President of the California Art Club. Klinker’s fame rivaled and even surpassed that of her father, a well-known Los Angeles-area minister, her brother, Zeno, who was a Hollywood writer, and her sister, Elza, who was a national tumbling champion.

The Decisions, 1930-1950
Orpha Klinker (American, 1891-1964)
Ink and graphite etching on paper; 17 1/4 × 21 1/4 in.
In Memory of Orlene Klinker-Bowers

All OK at the Bowers

Klinker was very closely associated with the Bowers Museum. Her first exhibition here was in 1939, just three years after the museum had opened its doors to the public. As a close personal friend to Evylena Nunn Miller, a Bowers Board member and fellow artist, she continued to work with the museum, presenting three solo exhibitions—the first of which was in 1943 and the last of which took place the same year as her passing—and also exhibiting alongside members of Women Painters of the West in 1952. Two years after her death, the Bowers Museum honored her with a memorial exhibition pulling from the twenty works described above.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.

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