A picture of a cozy cottage by William Oktavec (1885-1956), a Baltimore grocer who is credited with starting the fad of decorating window screens with rustic scenes. (The Maryland Historical Society)

Like its aesthetic cousin Formstone — the rocklike veneer of shaped plaster that tarts up some of Charm City’s dowdy brick rowhouses — the Baltimore-centric phenomenon of painting window screens with bucolic landscapes is, some might say, an attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But that dismissive analogy sells this strange little art form short, as a delightful exhibition at the Maryland Institute College of Art makes clear.

Organized by folklorist Elaine Eff, “Picture Windows is a celebration of the art of decorating ordinary window screens with pictures of country cottages, animals, Baltimore landmarks, street scenes and religious iconography. If done correctly, the paint does not block the holes in the screen, avoiding the appearance of “dead flies,” as one screen painter colorfully describes it. This allows for ventilation while adding a level of privacy. Except in situations where a strong interior light is shining, people on the outside of a painted screen — i.e., on the painted side — generally cannot see in, but the people inside can still see out.

It’s the same principle behind the micro-perforated films used to wrap city buses. Passengers can see out, but people on the sidewalk simply see a rolling billboard.

The art form started with commercial use, according to the show. Some old-time bank tellers, for instance, were obscured behind screens that afforded privacy while still allowing communication with customers. In Baltimore, the tradition took root as a residential fad after grocer William Oktavec (1884-1956) painted his shop’s screen doors in 1913 with images of meat, fruits and vegetables. The show, which celebrates the centennial of the art form, includes a facsimile of those doors, painted by a descendant of Oktavec’s, whose family tree is ripe with generations of screen painters.

An Oktavec family friend, sideshow performer Johnny Eck (best known from the 1932 movie “Freaks”), is certainly the most famous name in the show. The Baltimore native, who had a sideline painting window screens during the carnival offseason, is the subject of a satellite exhibition at MICA, “The Amazing Johnny Eck.” Make sure to stop in after checking out the screens. Eck’s work, several examples of which are included in each show, is notable for its lurid, almost expressionistic use of color.

Unlike Formstone, Baltimore’s screen paintings are not an attempt at trompe-l’oeil designs. With rare exceptions — one window screen on display features a cat sleeping in an open window — these pictures are meant to please, not fool, the eye. One particularly skillful screen, dated 2010, features a black-and-white rendering of pin-up icon Bettie Page. Most, however, feature the art form’s signature iconography: a red-roofed cottage in the woods, surrounded by clouds and, as often as not, featuring swans gliding on a lake. One entire wall in the gallery showcases examples of this motif, which, as Eff writes in her wall text, is “beloved to the point of kitsch in some circles.”

Yes, there’s a particular way of decorating window screens. Known as the “R.B.” (for red bungalow) style, this scene is probably the one that is requested most often, although individual artists’ representational techniques vary widely. According to several interviews recorded for a documentary made in 1988 (which plays in continuous loop in the show), painted-screen prices range from $2 to about $30. Rates, of course, may have gone up.

For the most part, the paintings in “Picture Windows” aren’t great art, at least in the estimation of the art world. In the documentary, Baltimore filmmaker John Waters attributes that to the works’ prices, saying that if screen artists began charging $1,000, galleries and museums might pay attention.

That’s probably wishful thinking. Seemingly characterized by a cartoonish sentimentality straight out of Thomas Kinkade, these pictures are lovable for reasons that have less to do with aesthetics than with authenticity. As with the best folk art, there’s an unpretentious directness here that takes itself directly to the streets, circumventing the snooty art establishment for, as one documentary interviewee puts it, the “critics” on the sidewalk.

The story behind the work

Most of “The Amazing Johnny Eck” features ephemera and artifacts related to the career of the sideshow performer born John Eckhardt Jr. (1911-1991), a Baltimore native who appeared to have been “snapped off at the waist,” as he put it, and who taught himself to walk on his hands. The show features toys, puppets and paintings made by Eck, who was also a talented visual artist.

Don’t look to the show to answer any of the obvious questions about Eck. Although a biographical wall label suggests Eck’s body stopped just below his abdomen, he was actually born with two undeveloped legs, which he hid under tight binding beneath his clothing. As for other lower-body anatomy, the show is mysteriously mute.

A quotation on the wall indicates that Eck, a lifelong bachelor, was never much interested in girlfriends, but there is some evidence that he had healthy, er, appetites.

Maybe “healthy” is not the word. A gallery in the back of the exhibition, restricted to visitors 18 and older, features a suite of fantastically pornographic drawings by Eck featuring bizarre creatures engaged in impossibly lewd sex acts, part of a secret trove discovered after Eck’s death in the freezer of an unused refrigerator in his home.

Yes, they’re shocking. (Funny, too.) But in a way, the drawings in this XXX-rated collection are the best — and most inspirational — thing about the show. As the cartoonist Robert Crumb observes in combined disbelief and awe as he peruses Eck’s naughty drawings in a short film that accompanies the show: “What a world we live in.”

The Story Behind the Work

— Michael O'Sullivan