Albert Oktavec, artist, screen painter, dies

July 05, 1992

Albert Oktavec, an artist, church restorer and heir to a 79-year-old family tradition of screen painting in East Baltimore, died early Friday at his city home from heart and kidney failure stemming from diabetes. He was 74.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. tomorrow at St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church, 2111 Ashland Ave., a church where the restoration work of three generations of Oktavecs is still visible to worshipers.

Mr. Oktavec was born in Baltimore, the son of the late William Oktavec Sr., a Czech immigrant who came to Baltimore in 1913 and settled across the street from St. Wenceslaus Church in the heart of Baltimore's Czech and Bohemian neighborhood.

William Oktavec was an artist and a draftsman, but opened a grocery store on North Collington Avenue to support his family. The elder Oktavec is credited with introducing screen painting to Baltimore when he painted fruits and vegetables on his store's screen door after moving the produce inside out of the heat.

Neighbors liked the painting, and the way it prevented passers-by from seeing inside, and they were soon asking him to paint their screens. His art business grew until he was able to sell the grocery and launch the company that his four sons, and now his grandson, Christopher G. Oktavec, carried on.

The family business on East Monument Street sold screen paintings, hand-lettered greeting cards, saints' medals, rosaries, picture calendars and church statuary. The family also did church restorations, painting, carpentry, stained glass and gold leaf work. That business continues to thrive as A. Oktavec & Sons, of Baltimore.

Albert Oktavec attended local parochial schools and Calvert Hall College. Unable to qualify for the military during World War II, he went to work for the Navy as a machinist in Washington, where he lived on a 42-foot boat he built himself.

After the war, he returned to Baltimore and rejoined his father and brothers in the family church restoration business. He specialized in decorative art.

He and his late brother, Richard, also continued the family's screen painting tradition, which later caught the attention of art museums, galleries and filmmakers. The Oktavecs and their screens have been the subject of several film documentaries, including the 1987 Richard Chisolm film, "The Screen Painters."

"My father stayed in the shadows. He didn't like publicity, yet they gave it to him all the time," said Christopher Oktavec. He also quietly donated thousands of dollars worth of work to church organizations, especially the Little Sisters of the Poor.

"He loved the sisters. . . . He just did it out of love," his son said.

In addition to his wife of 50 years, the former Theresa Michael, who was a childhood friend, Mr. Oktavec's survivors include two brothers, William Oktavec Jr. of Baltimore and Bernard Oktavec of Bel Air; two sons, Christopher of Baltimore and David J. Oktavec of Pylesville; five grandchildren; and one great-grandson, Peter, who works for the family firm.

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