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Baltimore tradition of painted screens celebrated at B&O Railroad Museum

For close to 20 minutes you couldn’t distract Isabella and Juliana Baikauskas as they sat silently, laser-focused on perfecting their painted screens at the B&O Railroad Museum.

With each brush stroke, their creations came into focus.

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The eldest sister, Isabella, painted a colorful beach scene featuring blue skies, bluer water, and cotton ball-like clouds. The younger sister, Juliana, put the finishing touches on her multicolored butterfly with red and white speckled spots on maroon and blue wings.

“I think it turned out pretty good,” said Isabella, 10.

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Juliana, 4, chipped in that her painting was “amazing.”

For the next two weeks, the museum will host a series of events revolving around the Baltimore tradition of painting screens, with origins that date back to the beginning of the 20th century in Great Britain. Then, rich residents would have the screens of their gazebos painted to provide privacy from onlookers. By 1913, a Baltimore grocer, William Oktavec, started the phenomenon in America by painting screens at his business. The tradition became popular among the working class.

At its height, Baltimore had anywhere between 150,000 and 300,000 screens, according to Baltimore-based screen painter and historian Michael Seipp.

Seipp, who led a historical discussion at the museum Saturday about the art form and taught a workshop for children, has been in love with the art since he was 10 and riding his bicycle throughout the city.

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“It was like driving through an art gallery,” he recalled seeing all the homes adorned with the colorful creations. “I got hooked on painted screens.”

And although air conditioning essentially ended the phenomenon — Seipp estimates that there are only about 5,000 painted screens left in Baltimore — he predicts a resurgence in the art form.

Seipp hopes that painting classes for kids and “Sip & Screen Paint” for adults at the museum will help.

“No other city in the world has it,” he said.

Kris Hoellen, executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum, said combining two of Baltimore’s oldest traditions — trains and painted screens — made sense.

Hoellen even said she planned on participating in the adult painting event.

“I’m a terrible artist,” she said with a laugh. “But I want to give it a try.”

Janell Baikauskas, the mother of Juliana and Isabella, appreciated the quick history lesson and the creative outlet that the museum provided her daughters.

“Our kids love trains, and they love art,” she explained, adding that her eldest child has been participating in virtual classes during the pandemic. “Our kids will take every opportunity they can to socialize and do art. Our oldest has been devastated because of COVID. She’s extremely social.”

Isabella agreed.

“I don’t like it at all,” she said. “It was not fun.”

But today Isabella was all smiles as she held up her painted screen.

“I’d give it a nine out of 10,” she said.

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