Story: Avis Hixon
Multimedia: Dayne Buttafuoco
Screen paintings are an old Baltimore tradition used for decoration, ventilation and privacy. They once adorned the majority of Baltimore’s row homes.
“They used to be everywhere,” said Elaine Eff, the President of the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore.
In 1913, a Czech immigrant and grocer painted his screen door with images of the produce and meats sold in his store. A neighbor saw his work and asked him to create a piece for her. Soon more people wanted their own pieces. By the 1920s and ‘30s, every neighborhood had its own screen painter.
During the 1940s and 50s, screen paintings were sold for less than a dollar and were featured in as many as 100,000 windows throughout the city. With the invention of air conditioners, traditional wooden frame windows with aluminum or vinyl screens became less popular and the folk tradition faded. However, today there are still screen painters and people working to keep the tradition alive.
Eff organized the painted screen exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum where beautiful screens painted by Baltimoreans are displayed on a mock row house. The exhibit features the history and a “how to” video by current screen painter Dee Herget.
Herget has been painting screens since 1977 and has many painted screens throughout Baltimore.
Eff is currently working on another exhibit to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of painted screens in Baltimore, which is set to open in December 2013. She isn’t just preserving the history of the folk art. She’s trying to bring it back.
“We want to put a screen on every window,” said Eff. “It’s apart of our ‘Gift to the Streets’ project.”
The project starts in the 400 block of South East Avenue.
Traditionally, most window screen paintings were of the little red bungalow which is surrounded by trees, but the project allows residents to choose what they want to be painted on their screens. The project is funded by a grant, which means that residents won’t have to pay for the screen themselves.
As a man left his home in Highlandtown, Eff quickly tried to explain the project. She asked him if he wanted his screen painted but the man adamantly declined and walked away.
“We’re trying to get the whole block but it’s slow,” Eff said.
Although it is unknown exactly how many painted screens there are in the city, a Washington Post article from 2008 estimated that about one in 30 homes in Canton had a screen painting in their window.
Screen painter Anna Pasqualucci grew up in Linthicum, Maryland and remembers seeing the painted screens on the way to her grandparents’ house in the city.
“I knew about it as a child and was always really excited to see the windows,” said Pasqualucci.
Pasqualucci did scientific laboratory research for 25 years until she got arthritis in her hands. Since she had a love for art and drawing she took up screen painting because she could gently hold a paintbrush, unlike the gripping of a pencil. Screen painting has been theraputic for her.
“It’s easier on my hands than hard painting,” she said. “And it’s easy to cover up mistakes.”
Even though Pasqualucci has little training, she paints for many people throughout the city, taught classes and shared her art at farmer’s markets and art shows.
Although, screen painting is an old Baltimore tradition that, for awhile, seemed to be disappearing Eff and many others are working hard to revive it. It’s more than just art, it’s brings people together and has the ability to make “a neighborhood a neighborhood again”.