Kitschy screen painting turns chic Trend: A nearly lost Baltimore art form -- the decorating of window and door screens -- has won fans in California and France.

April 05, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Painted window screens, once considered Baltimore kitsch, are now California chic.

The peculiarly Baltimore decoration has acquired an upscale moniker -- folk art -- and has been getting attention in national magazines. Trendsetters from afar are reviving interest in what has long been considered a dying art.

"I fell in love with screen art two years ago, after reading an article about it in Walls and Windows [magazine]," said Cheryl Mansfield of Redondo Beach, Calif. She's been pen pals with local screen artist Dee Herget ever since and two months ago became one of Herget's biggest customers.

"Our house sits in the shade and I wanted to brighten things up," Mansfield said. So she shipped six oddly shaped window screens to Herget and asked her to paint several ocean scenes. They now hang on the side of her home.

"Ten years ago, all of my customers were from Baltimore City," said Herget, 62, whose screen painting career has spanned three decades. "Now, at least once a month, someone from out of state calls me up. I've painted screens for people in San Diego, Houston and Detroit."

Even Paris has Baltimore's painted screens adorning a pied-a-terre here and there, Herget said.

The renewed interest in screen painting has prompted the return of Tom Lipka, who abandoned his studio more than 10 years ago, and has attracted younger artists. Newcomers Chrissy Maxwell, 28, of Canton and Eric Lemasson, a French artist who lives in Highlandtown, bring a contemporary flair to the art form.

There's even an exhibition of painted screens this month at the Canton Gallery on O'Donnell Square. The display, showcasing work that dates back to the 1930s, has encouraged more than 20 aspiring artists to sign up for a screen painting class that will be taught by Herget in June. Children also are signing up for screen painting classes April 12 at Hometown Girl Inc. on 36th Street in Hampden.

"This show has attracted more attention than any of my previous shows," said Canton Gallery owner Joe LaMastra. More than 70 people flocked to the opening of the exhibit last month -- four times the number that usually attend such an event, he said.

"People who live in the suburbs are taking trips to Canton just to see these paintings," said LaMastra.

Now that the weather has warmed up, faded screens are being sent to artists for a touch-up. Most customers request the traditional screen painting scene, introduced in 1913: A red-roofed bungalow under a bower of evergreens, with moonlight shimmering over all.

But some customers, especially out-of-towners, dare to be different.

"Everybody in Ocean City wants a lighthouse," Herget said. "You would think they'd want to see some trees and lawns for a change. But no. And the folks from out of state, they'll ask for just about anything. I've even painted the Madonna on a screen."

Lemasson, 44, said he seeks clients who are looking for something "unique." The French artist snubs the traditional scene.

"I have a lot of respect for the traditional screen painters, but I don't want to do the repeating bungalow scene," said Lemasson. He prefers streetscapes and ocean scenes.

Painted screens were introduced to Baltimore in 1913, when simmering summer temperatures forced an enterprising grocer

named William Oktavec to move his produce in from the sidewalk. To advertise, he painted fruits and vegetables on the screen door of his corner store.

His first screen was an immediate success.

A neighbor asked him to paint a red-roofed bungalow, copied from calendar art, onto her screen -- and a local fad was born. In Canton and Highlandtown, the bucolic scenes offered a pleasant diversion from the brick and Formstone rowhouses of industrial Baltimore.

The screens, painted in pastel hues, also provided a measure of privacy. The decorative artwork allows homeowners to see outside, but prevents others from seeing in.

A secret of the trade: Use pale colors.

"The lighter the color, the harder it is to see into the room -- it's an optical illusion," said Herget. "The sunlight reflects color back into your eyes. That's why painted screens don't work at night."

During the heyday of the art form, in the 1930s, more than 100,000 windows in Baltimore boasted painted screens, Lipka said. Today, he estimates fewer than 1,000 remain.

The problem is air conditioning.

"People don't know what it is to have fresh air anymore," Lipka said. "In the old days, people would sit out on the sidewalk in folding chairs and chat with their neighbors. But now, as soon as the weather warms up, people turn their air conditioners on."

So the artwork invented for practical purposes is now being sought after for its decorative flair.

The Johns Hopkins Hospital recently commissioned Maxwell to do a screen painting of -- what else -- the Johns Hopkins Hospital. The screen painting of the original Dome building will hang in the lobby of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Even people in affluent neighborhoods like Guilford and Roland Park are buying, Herget said.

Susan Talbott, a transplanted New Yorker who lives in Roland Park, recently commissioned a screen painting of Sacre-Coeur, her favorite Paris church. The screen hangs in the back door of her elegant two-story home.

"I didn't buy the screen for privacy, I bought it because I thought it was a neat work of art," said Talbott, who visits Paris about five times a year.

"I was looking for a Christmas present for the husband who has everything and thought, well, why not have a screen painting of Paris? We have a lot of art, but nothing like this -- this is something that's uniquely Baltimore."

Which brings to mind another decoration that is closely identified with Baltimore. If painted window screens are in the midst of a revival, can Formstone be far behind?

Pub Date: 4/05/97

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