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Celebrating the birthplace of Baltimore's screen painting art

ArtPainting

It was the summer of 1913 and the vegetables William Oktavec positioned outside his grocery store on North Collington Avenue were wilting in the sun.

Trained as a butcher, but an artist at heart, the young man who had immigrated with his father from what today is the Czech Republic moved the groceries back inside, where they could stay cool, but painted the screens to look like they were display case windows showing off meats and fresh produce.

"He was also looking for a novelty," said his granddaughter Barbara Oktavec Dewar, who was on hand Sunday for a celebration of his art on the street where it began. "He was looking for a way to attract the eye of customers."

His neighbor, Emma Schott, asked for a painted screen, too. She recognized the screens allowed you to see out, but no one could see in. She handed him a picture from a calendar that reminded her of home in what was then known as Bohemia — a red mill, a stream, mountains, clouds and blue skies.

"She wanted one so her husband could sit by the window and read his paper, but still have his privacy," said Elaine Eff, a Baltimore folklorist who spent the last year organizing the centennial celebration.

The grocery store lasted only two years before William Oktavec followed his passion and opened the Art Store on East Monument Street. From there, he and his sons, nephews, grandsons and students filled Baltimore's windows with painted screens.

The folk art custom has returned to the city, thanks to the efforts of the Painted Screen Society and Eff, who will publish a book on the subject in December, "The Painted Screens of Baltimore." The Maryland Institute College of Art will host a show on the screens in December.

But it was last February when Eff went to the residents of the street where screen painting was born and asked if they'd painted screens of their own.

"I was surprised," said Jonathan Loney, who'd never heard of screen painting. "I asked for flower pots." And that's just what he got. It looks like there are flowers blooming in his window and he added a pot of the real things out front to match.

That's the impact painted screens seem to have. When Eff approached Ellen Cameron at her home near Patterson Park, she immediately said yes, and met with a young artist to decide on how it would look.

Now most of her neighbors have painted screens, too. And they have added little gardens, flower pots, trees and a bit of a fence. Her neighbors have also agreed to keep their outdoor lighting on at night to prevent crime, and have come together to help one of their older neighbors by building a railing on her steps.

"It is such a joy," Cameron said of her painted screen. "It is like how you want to picture the world outside your window. I think it brings people together."

Sunday was St. Wenceslaus Day, a patron saint of the Czech people. The Rev. Peter Lyons of St. Wenceslaus Church — across the street from the old grocery store and built about the same time — blessed the event and thanked God for the gifts of "color, art and imagination." The church bells chimed, a gospel choir from the church sang and so did the Czech-Slovak Heritage Choir, illustrating the blend of old and new residents of what used to be called "Little Bohemia."

Up and down the block, there were screen painting demonstrations and screen painting lessons, and the Slovak pastry was free. Experts gave talks about the history of the neighborhood and there was a DJ, who had an informal rap contest among the children.

A-rabbers were on hand to demonstrate how they stack their carts to keep the fruit from tumbling and there were tours of the church, which has been repainted by descendants of the painting grocer.

Watching over it all were 33 painted screens, which reflected the evolving diversity of the neighborhood. In the window of the home once owned by Emma Schott was a re-creation of the screen painted for her husband. But elsewhere there were, along with Loney's flower pots, pictures of Jesus and the Ravens, as well as cows and barns and towering mountains and children in a park.

"This is the culmination of 100 years of our family," said Barbara Dewar, who remembers a grandfather so devout that he would read Bible verses to his children when they misbehaved. "We are honored and humbled."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

@SusanReimer on Twitter.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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