In 1913, A Czechoslovakian immigrant named William Oktavec had a problem he needed to solve. The fruit and produce he would display in front of his grocery store would often lay victim to insects and the radiant sun. He needed some way to protect and promote his products.
In an act of utility, Oktavec painted some fruit and produce on a screen door he had in the entrance of his shop as a way to advertise the now hidden and protected fruit.
People in his East Baltimore neighborhood quickly took notice of the unique piece of advertising Oktavec displayed. Soon, residents of the neighborhood started asking for their own screens to be painted by Oktavec.
By the end of that summer, a new folk art was born in Baltimore City. 100 years later, artists both young and old are still practicing that same art today.
Screen painting is truly unique to Baltimore. Its exact origins are in the East Baltimore community of Little Bohemia. Painted screens can also be found in Canton, Fells Point, Little Italy, and Highlandtown. While some examples of screen painting can be found in other places like the Maryland Eastern Shore and North Carolina, the largest concentration of painted screens has always been in East Baltimore.
“It’s all about rowhouses,” said Elaine Eff, a folk art historian and the definitive authority on painted screen history. She produced a documentary film on the art in 1989 titled “The Screen Painters” and is publishing a book this November titled “The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed.”
“It became so entrenched in 1913 that it became synonymous with Baltimore. It never traveled.”
While the city has changed considerably in the last 100 years, many people see painted screens as a unifying element. As different ethnic groups carved out enclaves in different parts of the city, the sight of a painted screen carried with it a sense of unity in a new environment.
“Back then, people didn’t travel much and in the smaller neighborhoods, a lot of the immigrants spoke their own languages,” said Monica Broere, a Highlandtown artist that began screen painting after working in printmaking, ceramics, pottery, and jewelry.
“They really didn’t get out of their neighborhoods that much because everything they needed was already in their neighborhoods. But one thing that made them more of a cohesive unit was the screen painting. The Czechs spoke Czech and the Germans spoke German, and they went to their own butchers, and their own private schools, and their own clubs and all that stuff, but the one thing that they did share in common was the painted screens.”
Painted screens are not as ubiquitous in Baltimore City as they once were, however. At the height of the painted screen production, it was estimated that nearly 100,000 painted screens could be found on the streets of Baltimore. Now that number is less than 3,000. The influences of technology, new property development, and demographic migration within and out of the city have all impacted the amount of painted screens on display in the city.
“It’s really about changing window technology as much as it was screens,” said Eff
“As the people who move in become less connected to the history of the community, you’re losing that tradition.”
Even though painted screens aren’t as numerous as they once were, the tradition still runs deep in the city. Many of the original painters were either self-taught or learned from the Oktavec family directly. There isn’t any formal school for screen painting and painters charge whatever they see fit. It is a grassroots tradition in the truest sense.
“I always loved art, but I never really had the chance to do artwork all the years I was raising my two children and working full-time,” said Anna Pasqualucci, a professional screen painter that started off as an amateur following a disability that forced her to retire as a scientific researcher.
“I tried painting a screen and I had no idea what I was doing. I got an old screen; put it on the kitchen table, used some paint and I tried it. It was an outlet.”
The definitive image of screen painting and one that many first time painters begin with is the red roofed bungalow scene. Pioneered by William Oktavec, it is a scene of a sleepy red roofed bungalow in the countryside with a lake or river next to it. It’s a country scene that has endured for a century and can be seen all around the city. Some artists, like Pasqualucci, add swans to the water features that accompany the bungalow.
“Although they acknowledge the red bungalow, many people say ‘I don’t want to do it’ or ‘I don’t do it’,” said Eff.
“While many other people say ‘that’s what I want and that’s all that I want’.”
While competition exists between screen painters, there isn’t one single painter that wants their personality to overshadow his/her work. In fact, many older painters decided not to sign their artwork when finished, unlike other traditional artists.
“Screen painters didn’t think of their work as art,” said Eff. “They thought of them as painted screens. They weren’t saying ‘I’m a great painter’, they were saying ‘I’m a screen painter’. It was an anonymous art. Their signature was their work.”
“A lot of those screen painters who aren’t with us anymore had their own personal styles,” said Broere.
“When you get to know screens, you can pick out who did what.”
The anonymity of the artists has made trying to mobilize them into one central organization difficult for many years. In 1985, Eff and a longtime screen painter, Dee Herget, founded the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore. The society’s mission is to be the definitive authority on painted screens in the Baltimore area and also worldwide with its ever-growing web presence.
The society holds regular workshops around the Baltimore area to teach the art to anyone that wants to learn. They also have a “Painted Screen Pilgrimage” tour booklet that can guide you through the historic painted screen neighborhoods of Baltimore. The biggest year for the society thus far is in 2013, however, during the ongoing celebration of the 100-year anniversary of William Oktavec’s first painted screen. The society has a wide range of events planned starting on June 15th (see under the story for complete information).
“What I’m looking forward to is more people knowing and learning about screen painting and people asking to have screens painted.” said Pasqualucci.
“Not just by me, but doing it themselves even.”
“It’s kind of a rolling party beginning in June,” said Eff.
“Between June and March (2014) if you don’t know about painted screens, forget about it.”
What is also being celebrated is the legacy of the Oktavec family. It all started with William Okatvec in 1913 and three generations later is being continued with master painter John Oktavec. The influence of the Oktavec family can be found in every painted screen in the world.
“The family was always involved. Not just his father and grandfather but his uncles all did screen painting,” said Broere.
“They’re the screen painting dynasty. The Oktavecs are essential to the tradition.”
“His methods and his styles were so exceptional that people are still trying to imitate it,” said Eff.
“Oktavec is really the rowhouse Rembrandt of Baltimore.”
There is no way to tell exactly what the next 100 years will hold for Baltimore and its many screen painters, but there is no doubt that the people involved with this unique Baltimore art form love it with a passion. Through their constant campaigning, collaborations with different organizations both public and private, and the power of the Internet, the future for painted screens looks bright.
“I think with the dissemination of education and with the Internet people are able to link into this a lot easier,” said Broere. “It’s not so provincial anymore. The information is out there and its expanded.”
The Creative Alliance will be lighting the first candles of our 100 year celebration that will continue into next spring.
June events all take place at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, corner of Eastern Avenue and S. East Avenue, Highlandtown.
Sat, June 15
11-7 Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival Contact Anna Pasqualucci or Monica Broere (free)
Workshop, demonstrations, hands-on screens, 100 screens for 100 years walk, birthday party.
Thu, June 20
7:30 pm 25th Anniversary showing of The Screen Painters Documentary plus Little Castles (the Formstone story) with discussion following films (Contact Creative Alliance 410-276-1651 for information tickets)
Sat, June 22
9:30-12:30 Painted Screens Pilgrimage Bus and Walking Tour led by Elaine Eff (Contact Creative Alliance 410-276-1651 for information and reservations)
Fri,Sat, Sun July 19-21 (awaiting confirmation)
12-6 daily Artscape Join us to pitch in and paint the largest Baltimore screen for The Lyric Theatre window -outdoors event (free)
Saturday, September 21
National Building Museum, Washington DC, “The Big Build”
We have been invited back for the second year to share screen painting as part of this impressive hands on all day program for youngsters. Last year museum volunteers helped more than 1,000 kids paint screen masks on site to take home.
Sunday, September 29
Happy 100th Birthday Painted Screen. Landmark plaque dedication of site of first painted screen in Baltimore, the former Oktavec grocery. Czech Feast and Family Day at St Wenceslaus Church followed by community Screen painting workshops and presentations, North Collington and Ashland Avenue.
November/December… Book release parties. At long last, The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed by Elaine Eff published by University Press of Mississippi will share the story of Baltimore’s screens and almost three hundred years of painted screens around the world. Let us know if you would like to sponsor a book signing at your home or a local business, bookstore or cultural center. (Contact Elaine 410-935-3858)