Elaine Eff, Maryland State folklorist
Painted screens—a Baltimore icon—first appeared in the city 1913, one year ahead of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Their origin is traced to William Oktavec, a Bohemian grocer who painted the screen doors of his corner store with pictures of the produce and meats he sold. From outside, you could not see beyond his handiwork. From inside, you had a clear view to the street.
The virtue of privacy was not lost on his neighbors, whose homes had no buffer from the sidewalk. Little Bohemia was awash with new rowhomes, taverns, corner stores, churches, schools and every amenity required to secure a new community. Soon “Oktavec the butcher,” became “Oktavec the artist,” opening The Art Shop, where he trained his sons and a few chosen apprentices in the art of screen painting.
As business grew, Oktavec borrowed images from calendars and greeting cards to paint the wire mesh. Soon, the red roofed mill or cottage became synonymous with the painted screens, which were in such demand that by the 1960s dozens of artists and dabblers had completed around 200,000 windows and door screens.
Flash forward to the 1980s.
The Painted Screen Society was founded in 1985 as a guild of screen painters, quickly becoming a community and regional non-profit to promote and preserve rowhouse arts. Painters led demonstrations and workshops. Emerging artists worked alongside masters. The Maryland State Arts Council supported apprenticeships through its folklife program, Maryland Traditions. A new breed of painters emerged, whose subjects – abstracts, portraits, and narrative scenes– would have once been unimaginable.
Screens may have diminished in numbers, but neighborhoods like Highlandtown and Canton have kept the tradition alive. Explore Eastern Avenue below Conkling Street, the Patterson Theater, Highlandtown Gallery and DiPasquale’s Italian Deli/Pompeii area for some real surprises. (Walking tour maps are available from HA! and the Painted Screen Society.)
You are invited to try your hand at painting screens at the BMA’s Imagining Home Opening Celebration on October 25, 11am-5pm. Artists Anna Pasqualucci and John Iampieri, both self-taught, bring their memories of discovering screens as youngsters in old Baltimore to bear in their very contemporary work. They share their skill and enthusiasm, as well as the secrets of screen painting.
Elaine Eff has chronicled Baltimore’s unique folk art since the 1970s when thousands of painted screens covered row house windows and doors throughout the city. She will be eager to listen to your memories, and sign the book The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed at Sunday’s event.