Handing Down A Painting Tradition

June 22, 1991|By Phyllis Brill

There was a time when Baltimore's screen painters were protective of their techniques and hesitated to share them with others. It was an attitude that threatened the unique Baltimore art form with extinction.

But Frank Cipolloni is different.

The lifelong Little Italy resident who learned to paint little red bungalows on window screens the hard way -- without a teacher -- believes in sharing his hard-earned expertise. "I figure there's always room for more screen painters," he says.

Mr. Cipolloni will join a couple of other members of the Baltimore Painted Screen Society at Harborplace today to demonstrate the unique folk art to onlookers. He'll be out there all afternoon, painting everything from country landscapes to city landmarks, encouraging bystanders to sit down and join him in workshops scheduled for 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., during City Visions, a weekend festival of visual and performing arts. (See accompanying box for other events.)

Mr. Cipolloni, who is 66 and retired, began painting pastoral scenes on window screens more than 45 years ago, when he needed "some extra money to go out on dates."

An artist by profession who was schooled in, among other techniques, hand lettering, and who for years designed the huge window displays at the Central Pratt Library, Mr. Cipolloni picked up screen painting on his own, by trial and error. Over the years he grew proficient at bringing millstreams, shade trees, water fountains and other images of refreshment to the windows of so many sultry city row houses.

Today he only occasionally paints screens for pay, but can often be found teaching at workshops and demonstrations as a member of the Painted Screen Society. That group was founded in 1985 to preserve the thousands of painted screens in Baltimore as well as the art form itself, which was particularly popular in the 1930s.

"There are only four or five old-timers left in the city," says Mr. Cipolloni, "and some of them don't like to share their secrets."

Mr. Cipolloni has painted the screens on the front of his Albemarle Street row house and is continually surprised by the amount of attention they get from visitors strolling through Little Italy. Out-of-town tourists, in particular, are taken with his housefront and often stop to take pictures.

"When they find out I'm the artist, they want to shake my hand. I've met people from St. Louis and Texas and all over. They all want to know, 'How long did it take you? How'd you learn to do it?'

"It's just something they've never seen before and they are so curious," he says about the unusual technique that is as indigenous to Baltimore row houses as Formstone and marble steps. "The point is," he tells people, "you can see out of your window but people on the outside can't see in."

That is, if you do it right. The most common mistake novice screen painters make, he says, is to use too much paint and to clog the holes of the screen. "The trick is in the wrist," he says.

The artisan likes to use Roman oil paint, like that used on highway signs. "It's rubberized and it doesn't powder," he says. "And it has a nice brilliancy."

Mr. Cipolloni will be sharing that and other tricks of the trade in this afternoon's workshop. Enrollment is free, but limited, and visitors are encouraged to sign up at least an hour in advance at an information table at the amphitheater. The society will supply screens, paint and brushes to participants, says Elaine Eff, city folklorist and organizer of the event.

Mr. Cipolloni says screen painting is growing in popularity among young people today. While some of them choose to learn the skill, others just want to have a painted screen in their homes as evidence of the old Baltimore tradition.

Oddly enough, he says, people in the city usually request country scenes -- "like a little house by a stream with a water wheel or a swan" -- and people from the country prefer city or historic scenes.

Some people even hang their screens on an interior wall in front of a black backdrop, he says. "When the light hits it, the colors are beautiful and it looks just like a regular painting."

City Visions

Screen painting demonstrations are just a part of City Visions, the three-day arts festival that began yesterday in the amphitheater between the Harborplace pavilions.

Today's activities begin at noon and continue until about 5 p.m. Seven teams of "sculptors" depicting Baltimore in the sand will ,, take center stage. This is the third year for the CitySand competition, which pits local designers against one another in a race to create the most imaginative sculpture.

This year's teams include architects, landscapers, city planners and other design professionals; their assigned topic is "Only in Baltimore." Each team will be given a bucket, water, shovel, a few hand tools and 100 cubic feet of sand. At 4 p.m., "building" ceases and the judges take over.

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