What? They paint pictures onto screens in Baltimore?
Welcome to one of Baltimore's unique traditions: Painted window screens. Long considered an indigenous form of folk art, the first screens were painted in 1913 by William Oktavek, an immigrant Czechoslovakian artist and grocer. Concerned about his wilting outdoor produce display during Baltimore's infamous hot and humid summer days, Oktavek moved his fruits and vegetables inside and painted pictures of his merchandise on the outside of his store screens to show the public what was sold inside. His customers immediately noticed that they could not see inside the store from the outside during the day, but once inside, as they looked out, it was as if there was nothing on the screen at all. A few days later, one of his regulars came to him with a picture from a calendar and she asked him to reproduce that picture onto her window screens. She had also noticed that she couldn't see through the painted screen into the store and she wanted her screens painted to keep the "bums" that hung out on the nearby corner from looking in. So, he painted the windmill from her calendar onto her screens and soon the entire neighborhood had him painting their screens as well.
The painted screens provided a nice decorated picture for the row house dweller, and more importantly, they furnished daytime privacy when the shades were up or the curtains were pulled back. "You can see out, but nobody can see in" became the catch phrase all over the city. That's the main reason painted screens are still so popular -- the unobtrusive privacy they afford. Painted Screens soon spread like wildfire throughout the city.
A new fad was born that developed into a tradition that still survives. You could always find someone painting screens every few blocks during their heyday from the 1920s to the 1940s. But after World War II, mostly due to the intervention of air-conditioning and the rising suburban exodus, the folk art fell into decline. There were, however, always one or two people still painting screens.
After quitting her civil service job due to a hearing loss, Dee Herget renewed her interest in painted screens and decided to learn the trade. She sought out the few surviving screen painters and convinced one of them to teach her the secret. She began to advertise and soon the appreciation of Baltimore's indigenous tradition was rejuvenated.
Dee has been painting screens since 1977 and each year she paints more and more. Now, her artwork can be seen along side of the "old masters" all around Highlandtown and other areas of the city, as well as other parts of the country.
In 1988, the Painted Screen Society was established by Elaine Eff, Baltimore's official folklorist. The Society had started to offer annual workshops to educate the public and promote this unique folk art.
That same year the Painted Screen Society produced the film, "The Screen Painters". Its instant success was made possible by the hard work and dedication of Elaine and her crew. The film was shown on public television throughout the United States and has since received various awards, including the American Film Festival's first place award for Best Amateur Documentary.
Remember -- you'll only see it in Baltimore.
www.screenpainter.com and works are copyright 2013 Dee Herget. All other material are copyrights of their respective owners.