Michael Seipp is doing his best to keep an old Baltimore art form alive.
Though he’s not a trained artist, he developed an interest in screen painting several years ago and now is part of a show with four other artists — John Iampieri, Anna Pasqualucci, Jeff Bodick and Paul Dorr — at the Off Track Art Cooperative and Gallery at 11 Liberty St., in Westminster through Aug. 29.
A painted screen is a window or door screen that has a painted composition on the outside of the screen. The painting allows the household to have privacy while also allowing air to flow into the home. The original painted screen artists of Baltimore said, “ ‘You can see out but no one can see in’. I like to call it public art privately owned,” Seipp said.
Seipp uses acrylic or latex paint. “I like to use Rust-Oleum or McCormick paints. They have the best colors and hold up well against the sun and airborne dirt,” he said.
Seipp began painting screens when he was in his 50s. “I took it up because my wife decided to go back to school to get a divinity degree and was going out of state for four years to study. I decided that I needed something to occupy my time. At first, I did three years of just charcoal and pencil sketches of Baltimore, primarily alleys where I played with other boys in the neighborhood,” he explained.
“Since I grew up in Baltimore, I had seen painted screens around me all the time. I decided I wanted to learn to paint them and keep the art form alive,” Seipp said.
“I heard about Common Ground on the Hill held annually at McDaniel College,” he said, a program that has offered classes, concerts, dances and galleries as part of Tradition Weeks since 1995. “I took the screen painting class held by John Iampieri.”
“Screen painting is not as easy as painting on other surfaces such as canvas or paper,” Seipp said. “The surface material is not smooth. The screen is a woven grid. Learning a technique to get the paint coverage is different. Painting on a surface with a thousand little holes in it, means that the result will not always be a photographic representation of the subject.
It is difficult to blend paint on a screen. Because the artist is using paint that must survive outdoors, there are fewer color choices and types of paint to use as you would on a canvas or paper.
Architectural subjects are harder to paint because of the linear aspects of the image. Most of the painted screen images are impressionistic. “On the flip side, because painted screens are very personal, people bring ideas to the artist. Customers tend to be particular about what they want because it is going to be on a front window or door,” Seipp said.
“The neatest scene I painted was for a woman in Southwest Baltimore,” Seipp said. “She wanted aspects of the neighborhood and the arts in Baltimore.” He painted four panels with images of Cab Calloway, Billy Holiday, Edgar Allan Poe and John Waters. The upper portion of the screen was an image of the old Patterson Theater, now home to the Creative Alliance. There is also a scene of Baltimore row houses. Other images on the door include the roundhouse at the B&O Railroad Museum and Hollins Market, which were part of her neighborhood.
Seipp also paints a lot of bird images, a popular subject.
“It is a very working-class art form, unique to Baltimore,” Seipp said. By conservative estimates, there were about 150,000 painted screens in the art form’s heyday, from 1913 to the 1970s. At that time, they were mass produced. As itinerant artists, the painters worked quickly in order to make a living.
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Early scenes were typically bucolic landscapes, often depicting a country bungalow, with a pond and a swimming swan. These scenes offset the hard, urban environment of macadam, concrete and brick.
Baltimore is the only city in the world where this particular art form was so widespread. But, when air conditioning became popular, the practical reason behind the paintings began to disappear, as did the art form itself. “Thanks to the work of a city folklorist, Elaine Eff, the art form has seen a revival. She single-handedly organized painters, created the Painted Screen Society, made two videos and wrote a book. All of these are available on the society’s website,” (www.paintedscreens.org) Seipp said.
Artists now paint a wide variety of subjects. Baltimore monuments, such as the Washington Monument, are popular subjects. Screen painters have also captured the Natty Boh logo, the Domino Sugar sign and the Baltimore waterfront. John Iampieri, who lives on the Eastern Shore, favors shore scenes.
This artists in the Westminster show recently finished an exhibit at the B&O Railroad Museum; the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore hosts a permanent exhibit.
“I like painting screens because I love Baltimore,” Seipp said. “My career was redeveloping old neighborhoods and adding painted screens to the landscape gives a level of ambience to its neighborhoods. I hope with our painted screen artists we will expand the reach of the art form throughout Maryland.”
You can contact Seipp through his website, baltimorescreenpainter.org or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lyndi McNulty is the owner of Gizmo’s Art in Westminster. Her column, An Eye for Art, appears regularly in Life & Times.