Baltimore's painted screens get fresh look

"To many people, painted screens were — and still are — as much a part of Baltimore as the harbor, row houses and white marble steps," says Elaine Eff, the enthusiastic and encyclopedic authority on one of the city's defining charms.

Nearly a century ago, in an east side neighborhood then known as Little Bohemia, corner grocer William Oktavec painted his first screen, illustrating goods for sale inside his store at North Collington and Ashland avenues. From that first step in 1913, he started a popular craze for transforming the plain old wire mesh in windows and doors into a kind of art.

A typical Oktavec image depicted an idyllic red-roofed bungalow nestled along a swan-dotted pond, a sight far removed from the working class streets of Baltimore. That kind of calendar or greeting-card image, along with paintings of local landmarks, soon sprang up all over town.

In addition to the decorative aspect, there was a practical point to painted screens. As the slogan went, "You can see out, but nobody can see in" (at least when interior lights were off).

Tomorrow, Eff will lead a "Painted Screens Pilgrimage" through neighborhoods where Oktavec's legacy remains most visible. The bus tour is a project of Painted Screens Society, which Eff runs, and the Creative Alliance.

"This is an example of our outreach to the neighborhood," says Luisa Bieri de Rios, outreach coordinator at the alliance. "Being able to take a tour that puts the screens in context, close up, is going to be very exciting."

One stop will be on East Monument Street, where Oktavec opened an art supply shop in 1922. He painted screens in the basement and taught the technique to others. "His sons continued painting screens over the years," Eff says. "And his grandson, John, is still painting them."

The tour will also highlight one of William Oktavec star students, Johnny Eck, the so-called "Half Man," memorably featured in the cult film "Freaks." Eck became an accomplished screen painter whose works adorned windows around town.

Up until the 1950s, screen artists were known to go door-to-door selling their craft, just as formstone salesmen did. "People used to do every window, including the basement, and doors," Eff says. "Old-timers always took them in during winter. Newcomers tend to leave them up year-round."

Eff estimates that 100,000 painted screens adorned Baltimore "in their heyday. They were everywhere," she says. "A block without any was very unusual. I'd say the total number left today is in the low thousands."

Changing times, tastes and technologies have had their affect on this folk art. The arrival of room air-conditioners in the 1950s and central air after that had some people abandoning their screens. "But you still want breezes," Eff says. "And air conditioning still doesn't mitigate the need for privacy from the street."

Initially, screen artists chose "bulletin paint," the kind used by sign-painters; water-based paints, enamels and acrylics found favor over time. "No two painters use the same thing anymore," Eff says. "And the painting is not necessarily on wire anymore."

One thing remains constant.

"The row house is the canvas," Eff says. "Painted screens may have reflected your grandmother's sensibilities, but they can reflect your own today." (Eff's Catonsville home has a screen depicting "a very cooling, woodsy scene with a waterfall going through it.")

The Painted Screen Society, founded in 1985, conducts screen-painting workshops and has prepared a how-to DVD. For those who can't make Saturday's guided tour, the society has put out a "Painted Screens Pilgrimage" brochure with a detailed map.

"The painted screen is possibly an endangered art form," Eff says. "The tour is a way to enthuse people about something that is quintessentially Baltimore — and it will be over by 12:30, so people can still run over to the Preakness, another endangered Baltimore tradition."

If you go: "Painted Screens Pilgrimage" bus tour begins with continental breakfast at 9:30 a.m. at the Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave., and will end around 12:30 p.m. Tickets, which must be purchased in advance, are $35. Call 410-276-1651 or go to

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