Arts Beat

It's Not Just a Screen, Hon; A Window on Baltimore Tradition

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008

BALTIMORE -- Screen painting in East Baltimore won't die, not on Elaine Eff's watch. The folklorist has been on a crusade for three decades to preserve the kitschy art -- landscapes painted on rowhouse window screens. The screens are for decoration, and privacy, too: The paintings allow residents to see out and prevent passersby from seeing in.

"It was a way of saying, 'Come a little closer,' " Eff says. " 'Not too close.' "

Next weekend, the American Visionary Art Museum will host "Rowhouse Rembrandts," a celebration of the art with workshops, demonstrations and a party for the old masters. An exhibition at the museum includes rowhouse facades decked out with painted screens and Eff's 1988 documentary "The Screen Painters," playing on a loop.

Painted screens are native to Baltimore and exist in the same family of city-specific quirks as the word "hon" and John Waters. The screens used to adorn nearly every rowhouse in East Baltimore, says Eff, the president of the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore. Today, roughly one out of every 30 homes in the Canton neighborhood carries on the tradition.

Eff, who is in her 50s, started knocking on doors and asking about painted screens in the mid-'70s as a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. She wrote a 412-page dissertation in folklore studies on screen painting. She's still the tradition's cheerleader, keeping tabs on surviving screen painters and helping inspire a new generation with events such as the show at the Visionary Museum, which she helped organize.

Baltimore screen painting got its start in 1913 when Czech immigrant and grocer William Oktavec decorated his screen door with an image of the produce and meats sold inside his store. A neighbor asked Oktavec to create one for her home (to deter peeping Toms), and the art spread by word of mouth. The heyday of screens was in the 1920s and '30s, when every neighborhood had its own screen painter, Eff says. Oktavec died in 1956; his grandson John carries on the family trade.

Betty Piskor, 80, owns an original Oktavec. On a hot morning last week, Piskor lugged her painted screens from the basement of the Canton rowhouse where she's lived for 50 years to her back yard for their annual cleaning (a shot of water from the garden hose). They're a seasonal art -- people used to display them only in spring and summer, when they'd have their doors and windows flung open.

Almost all of the screens in Piskor's collection, like the majority in Baltimore, depict the same quaint country scene of a bungalow, trees, mountains and swans. Artists differentiate their work by varying the shapes of the trees or the color of the cottage. As 72-year-old screen painter Tom Lipka puts it, "I don't deviate too doggone much."

Piskor remembers a young Lipka coming around the neighborhood with a case of paints, asking people if he could work for them. Lipka started painting screens in 1946 at age 10. He learned the art by watching someone paint a screen on the sidewalk. His mother was his first paying customer.

"I could draw a little bit so she thought, eh, might be a good idea to keep him out of trouble," he says.

Business boomed every summer until he went into the Air Force in 1953. When he returned in 1958, people had window air-conditioning units and didn't need painted screens anymore, he says. Lipka teaches classes on screen painting at the Community College of Baltimore County. He sells instruction manuals for $20 -- a big change from the old days, when the techniques were kept secret. Some of the painters never even let their proteges watch them paint screens. Others lied about their materials.

Lipka's manual stresses the need to keep the holes clear. (Clogged holes look like dead flies from the inside.) He teaches new artists how to keep their paint thin: blow on any globs or -- as a last-ditch effort -- poke a toothpick, needle or nail through.

Eff says that if one student in a class of 25 takes up screen painting, that is "an amazing measure of success." Most of the people who sign up for workshops are older and just want to paint one screen.

"I did have one young boy who took the class, 13 or 14," Lipka says. "He seemed enthusiastic, but I haven't heard from him since. I was hoping he'd call again."

At least one screen painter is pushing the art form to new territory. Jenny Campbell makes dresses and corsets out of painted screens. The bad girl of Baltimore screen painting, Campbell has also reproduced Andrew Wyeth's 1948 painting "Christina's World" on a screen and painted a portrait of 1950s stripper Blaze Starr wearing silver pasties.

A former tattoo artist and Essex, Md., native, Campbell dons the dresses (lined with black cotton) on special occasions but can wear them only a few times before the paint starts to flake off. Other partygoers tend to want to "pet" her, she says.

"I painted them for two reasons," Campbell says. "One, to proudly show my Baltimore roots and two, to confuse the locals."

Rowhouse Rembrandts, May 9-10 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Hwy., Baltimore. 410-244-1900, for full schedule.

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