The Unique Baltimore Art of Painted Screens

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By Cindy Kleback and Morgan Stanton, Southeast Anchor Library

According to The Painted Screen Society of Baltimore, painted screens were first introduced to the city in 1913. Row home owners, particularly in the ethnic neighborhoods of East and Southeast Baltimore, had their window or door screens decorated, often with images of bucolic landscapes, urban monuments, or familiar street scenes. Besides aesthetic consideration, this populist artwork served a function – it gave city dwellers privacy, because they could see outside through their painted screens, but people outside couldn’t see in. Baltimore became the painted screen capital of the world with as many as 100,000 screens being created in the 1940s and 1950s. One famous painted screen artist was Baltimorean Johnny Eck, a sideshow performer and actor born without a lower torso due to Sacral agenesis who had a starring role in the 1932 cult movie Freaks.

Painted Screens 2
Photo by Jacqueline Watts

The four painted screens shown above were commissioned for the Bicentennial in 1976 to adorn the large plate glass windows of the now defunct Highlandtown Branch. They were painted by the late Richard Oktavec (1927–1979), son of William Oktavec, the very inventor of screen painting himself. The screens are adorned with images of a series of typical Baltimore row houses, the Patterson Park Pagoda, the Shot Tower, and the Broadway Market. When the painted screens were acquired by the Southeast Anchor Library, Master Wood Grainer Frank Bittner framed them. This traditional craft was similarly passed on to him by his father and grandfather.

While these pieces of functional folk art decorated many of the windows and doors in Baltimore during most of the twentieth century, screen painting is a dying art with only a few painters in Baltimore still creating new works. One artist putting a new spin on this art form is Anna Pasqualucci, who is painting traditional painted screen images on different canvases, such as sling back chairs. John Oktavec, the grandson of William Oktavec, keeps his family's legacy alive by continuing to create painted screens and by teaching the next generation of his family about this beloved art form:

Be sure to take some time to admire our painted screens upon your next visit to the Southeast Anchor Library, and maybe check out some other examples of this unique folk art hidden in plain sight in your own neighborhood or view some beautiful examples on Flickr!

I remember as a young girl being excited to visit my grandmother who had painted screens. I enjoyed looking at people walk pass but they could not see me. So cool. The funny thing is, I can't remember the artwork. Thanks for the reservation of the "Painted Screens" right here where I work.
Posted by: Angela Bailey at 7/31/2012 10:32 a.m.

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