Skip to main content

Folk Art: The Baltimore Tradition of Screen Painting

Painted screens in Baltimore.

Painted screens in Baltimore.

Painted Screen Dress Up Row Houses

Painted screens are a unique folk art tradition popularized in Baltimore, Maryland in the early half of the 20th Century.

Imagine: long, drab blocks of narrow, identical row houses, their windows directly on the sidewalk. Sounds boring but it wasn't. The marble steps gleamed in the sunlight, freshly scrubbed every week. Basement windows were decorated with religious statues or souvenirs. Maybe a pot of brilliant red geraniums on the sidewalk or stoop. And beautiful painted screens depicting scenes of rural cottages, trees, ponds, and flowers.

Painted screens allowed for a bit of privacy for the people who lived in homes built so close to the sidewalk. Passersby could not see into the home, but the inhabitants of the home could see out. Walking down those streets of East and Southeast Baltimore could have been dull, but thanks to a little ingenuity and creativity, it was beautiful. It was like an outdoor museum.

Painted screen.

Painted screen.

William Oktavec and the Origins of Screen Painting

In the summer of 1913, a grocer named William Oktavec grew concerned that the heat and humidity were bad for the produce that he usually displayed outside of the shop. He decided to move the produce inside. In order to entice customers, he painted pictures of his produce on the outside of the shop window screen. People could view pictures of his products, but could not see inside the store. People who were inside the shop could still see out the window.

One day, a neighbor stopped by the store and asked Oktavec if he could paint her front window screen She wanted some privacy. The hooligans who hung around on the street corner could see right into her home! The woman offered him a picture from a calendar to copy and an artistic tradition was born. Soon, more commissions followed.

William Oktavec was born in Czechoslovakia in 1885 and was a trained commercial artist and illustrator. He came to the United States and gained employment in Newark New Jersey where he worked for the Eclipse Air brush Company. There, he pained his first screen for a secretary who complained of a lack of privacy - it was hard for her to attend to her duties while so many people passed who by her office window looked in.

Oktavec moved to Baltimore in hopes of opening an art supply store but the venture failed. He opened a grocery store instead. But his dream was not thwarted. Little did he know, as he stood behind his wooden counter surrounded by pickle barrels, that he'd start an artistic tradition that took Baltimore by storm.

His screen painting business took off and was so successful that he was finally able to open his art supply store, selling art supplies, greeting cards, and stained glass. The new shop became a community art center that provided instruction and became a hub for the arts in East Baltimore on East Monument St.

Painted screens - Red Roofed Bungalow

Painted screens - Red Roofed Bungalow

The Red Roofed Bungalow

One of William Oktavec's most popular themes was the Red Roofed Bungalow: A quaint white cottage with a red roof situated in idyllic surroundings. The edges of the cottage are hidden with shrubbery and flowers. A winding path leads through green hills toward the house. Often, a pair of swans are featured in a pond in front of the cottage.

After William's death in 1956, his sons, Al and Richard, continued the tradition of screen painting. They introduced new themes including patriotic and local scenes as well as historical and religious images.

Today, William's grandson, John Oktavec, leads a quiet life in a white cottage at Riviera Beach in Pasadena outside Baltimore. Though John rarely goes into the city, he paints screens on commission, and advertises on his website.

Baltimore Rowhouses

Baltimore Rowhouses

Meet John Oktavec

Painted Screens in the Modern World

After World War II, interest in painted screens declined in popularity. Tastes changed. Jalousie windows and doors put the screen inside behind glass. The advent of air conditioners kept windows and doors closed, and curtains drawn. The beautiful painted screens began to disappear from the urban landscape.

In the 1970s, Dee Harget learned the trade from a few surviving artists. She began to paint screens, advertised, and renewed interest in the skill of screen painting.

Elaine Eff wrote her doctoral dissertation and dedicated a large part of her work to Baltimore's painted screens. She postulated that urban immigrants missed the rural settings of their European childhoods so were drawn to the sylvan settings depicted on painted screens. She even researched old pictures of houses in Czechoslovakia in search of the beloved red roofed bungalow.

In 1988, the Baltimore Painted Screen Society was established and was dedicated to the continuation of the beautiful decorative tradition. Elaine Eff said that, "in a pre-TV era, the show's outside." People could sit in their living rooms and watch the goings-on outside while the people on the sidewalk viewed a fanciful painting of a sentimental landscape.

Eff produced a documentary film called the Screen Painters that was shown on nationally on PBS. The documentary features the screen paining brothers Ben and Ted Richardson.

Today, the Baltimore Painted Screen Society promotes and educates the public on the folk are of Baltimore screen painting. It hosts classes, workshops and introduces people to the art at events like Baltimore's annual summer Artscape.

Painted Screen

Painted Screen

Painted Screens Are Back

Painted screens are back. They may not show up along endless rows of narrow houses of Baltimore, but are scattered throughout the city and surrounding counties. Painted screens have been displayed at the American Visionary Museum at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Painted screens on individual homes still can be seen in the streets of Canton and Highlandtown.

At ArtScape 2009, the Baltimore Painted Screen Society hosted a 1 hour workshop where participants were given a crash course in the unique folk art.

Screen painting workshop

Screen painting workshop

Dolores Paints a Screen

The workshop at Art Scape quickly filled with would-be screen painters. The tangled legs of easels and the scramble to find a spot created an instant rapport and sense of merriment among the participants.

The Baltimore Painted Screen Society offered jars of acrylic paint, brushes, cans of water, and, of course, screens. The equipment and colors were limited and so was the time, but none of these shortcomings deterred interest. The jostling of students and observers incurred laughter and camaraderie as folks shared paint and space. Bumped easels and paint smeared hands brought out a sense of community as we all plunged into the lesson.

Walking around Art Scape with a window screen was a pain in the butt. Fortunately, a gentleman admired it and was happy to take it off my hands and add it to his display.

Walking around Art Scape with a window screen was a pain in the butt. Fortunately, a gentleman admired it and was happy to take it off my hands and add it to his display.

How to Paint a Screen

In order to display a painted screen in your window or door, you must use exterior grade paints.

  1. Prime the outside of the screen with exterior grade white primer.
  2. Cover the inside of the screen with black paper. This will help you see your work.
  3. Make sure that your brush is relatively dry. You don't want globs of paint to fill the holes in the mesh. Remember, you still want to see out of the screen.
  4. Create a background. Lay in the basic painting areas (e.g., sky, landforms, water, buildings, etc.) with light colors.
  5. Add definitions (e.g., clouds, trees).
  6. Work in details, beginning with light colors and ending with dark colors.
  7. When the painting is finished and has dried, apply a clear coat (again, exterior grade) to preserve and protect your painting.
  8. You might attempt practice screens by cutting smaller pieces of screening material or using an old screen to get the feeling of how to paint on a screen.