Screen Savers

A dwindling breed tries to preserve a quintessential Baltimore art form, which will be celebrated this weekend

May 07, 2008|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun reporter

Every window and even the jalousie door in Lil Sims' skinny Formstone-encased rowhouse in Canton has a screen that her baby brother painted.

The look is a throwback to an era when rowhouses displaying painted screens brightened entire East Baltimore blocks.

The classic screen scene of the red-roofed bungalow in varied pastoral settings adorns several of Sims' windows. She's also got one of kids fishing and one of three kittens - scenes she liked.

"I just got done washing them," she says, adding that she uses no soap. "You just hose them down," she says, explaining that the point is to remove the dirt, not the design, from these screens.

"I use the painted screens for beautiful decorations," says Sims, 81.

She thinks that Baltimore would be a better place if pedestrians had more painted screens to smile at as they strolled by.

They once did.

It was at a time, many decades ago, that the city's landscape included brick-striping (painting a brick-and-mortar design over brick and mortar), arabbers (the horse-drawn produce carts that meandered the streets), woodgraining (faking the look of pricey grained woods) and Formstone (a stucco that looks like stone).

But of the city's signature urban arts, screen painting is the John Hancock.

It's either unique Baltimore kitsch or an endearing folk art, depending on your point of view. Whichever, during their height of popularity through the first half of the 20th century, as many as an estimated 100,000 painted screens are said to have adorned rowhouse windows.

And they were practical: The screens let residents look out and a cooling breeze blow in. The art depicting bucolic fantasies far removed from the city's brick and stone canyons protected residents' privacy, by blocking anyone from peeking in from the sidewalk.

Screen painters will be the centerpiece this weekend at "Rowhouse Rembrandts." The festival of urban folk art will be held mostly at the American Visionary Art Museum, where an exhibit features rowhouse facades, demonstrations, workshops, an homage to the old masters of the art and a paint-a-thon for the unknown number of people carrying on Baltimore's tradition.

Running all day will be The Screen Painters, the 1988 documentary made by screen painting's chief booster, folklorist Elaine Eff. She's a co-founder of the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore and administrator of cultural conservation for the Maryland Historical Trust. Her doctoral thesis some 30 years ago was on screen painting.

"More and more, history and culture of the community is written in brick and mortar. But buildings don't talk," she says.

Screen painting workshops are planned to include everything from the basics to advanced techniques to making a screen apron.

But, organizers say, this is, if not the first, one of few such celebrations to include screen painting's companion arts.

At least one arabber will be there with an artfully stacked horse-drawn produce cart. There will be demonstrations of woodgraining and the making of squat flowerpots out of old tires. Talks will cover various artistic facets of the old neighborhoods.

Czech immigrant William Oktavec is credited with originating painted screens in 1913. He moved his fruit inside from the sun so it wouldn't rot and advertised by painting produce on the screens of his grocery store on the corner of North Collington and Ashland avenues, says his grandson, third-generation screen painter John Oktavec of Riviera Beach.

After a neighbor asked the grocer to paint on her screen a red-roofed bungalow from a calendar (or greeting card, depending on who's telling the story), his neighbors were smitten. By summer's end, painted screens were all the rage. The red-roofed country cottage became the standard for East Baltimore. Aspiring artists became screen painters.

Lil Sims' brother, Tom Lipka, joined the legions. Now 72, the former city traffic engineer is a Rembrandt of sorts, a 60-plus-year practitioner of the humble art.

The siblings grew up in the house she now owns.

"Around 1945, [or] '46, I was walking through my neighborhood, and this man was sitting out on this milk crate painting screens. I went home; I asked my mother for some money and bought screens and paint," he said.

By age 11, he charged 50 cents or so per screen in a booming summertime business. Years later, he returned from five years in the military in 1958 to find scarce demand for his art. The art faded so fast that until Eff came along and until a TV news segment featured it, Lipka says, people told him they thought all its practitioners were dead.

"The main reason it died out is because window air-conditioning came in. People said we don't need screens to let in air," Lipka said.

But they need screen painting - at least to appreciate it and understand the lives that generated it - insists Eff.

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