Screen Play

Painted Scenes Aren't Just For Windows Anymore As Artists Turn Their Imaginations Loose.

October 08, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

You can see out; no one sees in."

The tried-and-true pitch for painted screens applies as well to Jenny Campbell's creations. That's a good thing, because she has turned the Baltimore tradition into wearable art.

For a gala a few years ago, Campbell sewed a gown from a roll of fiberglass screening purchased at a housing-supplies store. With acrylic paint, she festooned the fitted, strapless garment with pink flamingos, an expanse of turquoise water and a lush palm forest. A dark fabric lining added depth to the tropical landscape and made it opaque.

"You can't run from your roots," says Campbell, 43, who is the darkroom technician at the Walters Art Museum. Raised in Essex, Campbell spent plenty of time shopping and visiting family in Highlandtown, where screens painted with bucolic country scenes animated the rowhouses of East Baltimore.

Baltimore screens are not just for doors and windows - or for affording privacy - any more. Campbell is one of a growing number of Baltimore artists who are keeping the folk art alive with clever variations on a screen. Framed, screens hang as works of art. In miniature, they grace mantelpieces. When worn as clothing, they become moving objects of art that define the figures and sensibilities of those who wear them.

Screen artist Dee Herget painted the door of a Baltimore couple's pop-up camper. In 2001, Baltimore artist Tony Shore's contribution to the Fish Out of Water project was a tribute to the city's first screen painter, William Oktavec.

Red-roofed cottages, waterfalls, swans and other traditional painted-screen subjects are still popular, but so are lighthouses, portraits, re-creations of famous paintings and outdoor scenes inspired by photographs and other sources. Some of the most innovative screen pieces, though, have the strongest sense of place. Campbell's Hon Corset, for example, features a medley of rowhouses typical of different Baltimore neighborhoods.

`Adapting to the times'

It should "come as no surprise that painted screens would reappear in other forms and other venues," says Elaine Eff, director of cultural conservation programs for the Maryland Historical Trust and founding director of the Painted Screen Society. "[Change] is the same inspiration that led Oktavec to paint his first screen in 1913," Eff says.

Change is good, she says. "Any new form that gives [screens] renewed life is just about the tradition changing, which is what folk art is all about. It's adapting to the times."

Tom Lipka, who has painted screens for decades, is an "old school" artist who has adapted by devising ways to make his work more affordable and plentiful. A retired traffic engineer for Baltimore City, Lipka, 68, creates miniature doors fitted with painted screens.

He developed the technique after selling out of his larger screenings at a lecture he gave. It was a sales coup that left the artist without samples. "They wanted to buy every one," Lipka says. "I decided to do something, so I started making these little screen doors as souvenirs. They became very popular."

Lipka, who teaches screen painting at schools and community centers throughout the area, has also adapted to the times by establishing a Web site and his own brand of distance learning. Through the site, he has attracted 200 students across the United States and Canada, whom he sends the same material he developed for his classes.

Many of these cyber students, whom he doesn't charge, scan in photos of their work for Lipka's critique. "It's great to know that, hey, it's all over the country, not just in Baltimore," the Hamilton resident says.

One of Lipka's former students, Lisa Penn, has launched her own cottage painted-screen industry. One of Penn's pieces, a kitchen cupboard with a traditional painted-screen scene, is for sale at Hometown Girl, a Hampden shop offering Baltimore-related gifts. The Medfield artist gets numerous commissions from Ocean City customers to do water scenes. Her mother asked for a screen with a marlin leaping from the water.

"I paint anything somebody wants me to," Penn says. "It's fun because it's a Baltimore tradition and it's coming back."

An eagerness to learn

The art of painted screens is returning, in large part, because amateurs familiar with the Baltimore folk art are eager to learn how to do it themselves. With every new student comes the potential for a new twist.

On a Saturday afternoon in a Hampden shop, retired police detective Tom Matarazzo teaches two students how to do a painted-screen lighthouse scene.

Maureen Robey of Hunt Valley and Mark Chalkley of Baltimore carefully dab acrylic paint onto small screens. Once they finish the lighthouse, as well as the trees, dunes, clouds and water, they'll cap the work off with seagulls.

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