One hundred years ago, Bohemian-born William Oktavec, a butcher by trade and a would-be artist, arrived in Baltimore from New York with his wife and young son. He set up a grocery shop at the corner of North Collington and Ashland avenues in the area known as Little Bohemia.
During the summer, Oktavec installed a screen on the front door of his business and made it more than an insect deterrent. He painted it with images of the meat and vegetables available inside. Passersby could not see through the wire mesh into the shop, but anyone inside could see out as easily as if the screen were unadorned.
A neighbor, impressed with that privacy function, commissioned a painted screen from Oktavec and suggested an idyllic scene for the image. In short order, everyone in the neighborhood seemed to want something just like it, and Baltimore's most iconic folk art genre was off and running.
Opening Friday at the Maryland Institute College of Art is a comprehensive exhibit — by all accounts, the most comprehensive ever — devoted to that genre.
"Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore and Beyond," installed in the Fox Building's Meyerhoff Gallery, does not just celebrate the considerable Oktavec legacy. The collection of more than 100 items also explores the back story of decorated screens, as well as ways the art form continues to be practiced.
"People will be very amazed about all this history, like seeing a screen from Sweden painted around 1840," says Gerald Ross, MICA's director of exhibits. "It's just amazing to me that these things were being done then."
The person who has long been diligently digging into that intriguing past is folklorist Elaine Eff, the reigning expert on the subject and author of the handsome, well-illustrated "The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed," just published by University Press of Mississippi.
Eff, co-founder of the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore, curated the MICA exhibit, which features dozens of screens, including replicas of the now-lost doors to the Oktavec grocery, and even a mock rowhouse with a screened window.
The show is the culmination of four decades of research into the art form, research that uncovered a tradition of painted screens much older than many a Baltimorean might have suspected.
The first area of the MICA exhibit addresses screen-painting roots in Europe in the 18th century and showcases beautifully preserved examples of 19th-century screens bearing idyllic black-and-white landscapes, on loan from houses in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire.
There's also an extraordinary discovery — a crate of painted screens shipped around 1900 to M.C. Ebbecke Hardware of Allentown, Pa., and stored unopened until earlier this year.
Such items, along with an 1893 advertisement from Mohler & Hurlbutt Importers on North Charles Street, offering landscape screens for sale, raise the question of how much Oktavec knew about the tradition before embarking on his career here. But, as Eff reports in her book, Oktavec maintained that he never saw examples of the art form before painting his first screens.
Regardless, interest in painted screens had declined by the beginning of the 20th century, for reasons that are not clear, Eff says. So Oktavec essentially got the genre going all over again on the rowhouse-packed streets of Baltimore. No other city appears to have embraced the art form as heartily as this one did.
The MICA exhibit makes clear Oktavec's long-lasting influence on other artists, starting with his two sons. They both added their own subtle variations on their father's most defining and popular scene, a red-roofed cottage nestled amid trees, with a nearby pond and a couple of swans — about as far removed from the world outside a typical Baltimore rowhouse as could be.
A substantial portion of gallery space is devoted to different versions of the red bungalow. There's also an example that dares to part with tradition. In this screen, the bungalow has a bold blue roof instead of a red one. That artist was all about asserting individuality. He was Johnny Eck, the man born without a lower half.
Eck, who came to worldwide attention in the 1932 film "Freaks," lived around the corner from the art shop William Oktavec opened on East Monument Street after giving up the grocery. In the early 1920s, Eck took lessons there from the father of Baltimore's painted screen movement and revealed a flair for the medium.
Several Eck screens are included in "The Amazing Johnny Eck," a collection of more than 200 personal objects and artworks being displayed for the first time. The exhibit is running concurrently with, and adjacent to, "Picture Windows."
"To me it made perfect sense to dovetail the two exhibits in some way," Ross says, "since Johnny Eck was one of the first screen painters. I like to see the human condition in everything we display here. In both of these exhibits, you can see neighborhood, culture, real things that real people made despite whatever else they were going through."
Eck certainly went through a lot during his lifetime, but he persevered and, through his screen art at least, revealed a good deal of cheeriness.
"Johnny truly believed he could do anything he set his mind to," says Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, curator of the online Johnny Eck Museum and the MICA exhibit. "He painted cute little things on screens, things he saw on greeting cards and postcards."
The last screen Eck painted, in 1989, is a sweet image of a leprechaun, a pot of gold and a rainbow. "It's so optimistic," Eff says. "All he wanted was for someone to bail him out of his Milton Avenue home."
The range of subjects for screens grew wider over the decades, as the MICA exhibit demonstrates. Some artists stuck to landscapes; one of Oktavec's students, Ruth Chrysam, avoided red bungalows entirely, preferring woodsy images like the fetching "Moonlight on the Lake," a gem in the show.
Scenes of Baltimore life, such as "Arabbers" with their horse-drawn carts or water views of Fells Point, were popular (some cleverly included images of rowhouses with painted screens — a screen within a screen). Of course, Elvis got into the mix along the way, too. Today's practitioners of the art reveal considerable variety of theme.
"They're painting anything but red bungalows now," Eff says.
The current keeper of the Oktavec tradition, William's grandson John Oktavec, is a good example. His screen door for a Canton hair salon, included in the exhibit, features a vivid depiction of the universe, bustling with sci-fi energy.
There is also room in the show for what Eff calls "X-rated" screens, including portraits of pinup model Bettie Page and stripper Blaze Starr.
Whatever the subject matter or however rudimentary the technique, the character of screen painting remains "entirely Baltimore," Ross says, and very personal.
"To me, it comes down to human expression, as all art does," he says. "We know these people were painting very seriously but were all untrained. Screen painting blurs the line between folk art and fine art, but in my mind, I would frame painted screens totally as fine art because so much of humanity is embedded in them."
If you go
"Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore and Beyond" and "The Amazing Johnny Eck" will open with a reception from 5 p.m to 8 p.m. Friday at the Meyerhoff Gallery and Decker Gallery of MICA's Fox Building, 1303 W. Mount Royal Ave. The exhibit, running through March 16, will be open Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays noon to 5 p.m. Free admission. Call 410-225-2300 or go to mica.edu.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun