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Photo courtesy of Dee Herget
A Baltimore tradition is born

Screen painting is more than an art form. It started with a purpose.

With temperatures in the 90s and a considerable amount of humidity, summers in Maryland can be scorching. According to screen painter Dee Herget, this was no secret to Czechoslovakian grocer William Oktavec, especially when he saw the fruits and vegetables that were on display outside of his Baltimore store were wilting.

Concerned about his produce, the heat forced him to move the arrangement inside. The only problem was he needed a new way to entice customers into his store. Painting pictures of the fruits and vegetables on the window screens of his grocery store worked better than he thought. But little did he know that the art of window screen painting would be born right there on the window screens of his grocery store in 1913.

Herget also says that many of Oktavec's customers noticed that you couldn't see in the store through the painted screens and wanted their window screens painted to keep people hanging out on nearby corners from looking in. In fact, only a few days later, a regular to Oktavec's store came to him with a picture from a calendar and asked him to reproduce the picture onto her window screens. He painted the windmill from her calendar onto her screens and soon the entire neighborhood had him painting their screens as well.

This new form of art also inspired people young and old to take it up as a pastime.

By the 1930s, that East Baltimore row homes displayed almost 100,000 painted door and window screens. But the painted screens not only provided a nice decorative picture along the row homes, more importantly, they gave privacy during the day when the shades were up or the curtains were pulled back. In other words you could see out, but you couldn't see in.

Screen painter Tom Lipka remembers that from the 1920s to the 1940s you could always find someone painting screens every few blocks in East Baltimore. The downfall of screen painting, he says, occurred after World War II, however. This was mostly due to the invention of air-conditioning. But a few people continued painting screens.

In 1988, Baltimore's official folklorist, Elaine Eff, formed the Painted Screen Society (PSS) in order to educate the public about this unique art form and promote its uniqueness.

During that same year, the PSS produced the film, The Screen Painters. Public Television throughout the United States featured the film, turning it into a huge success. The film has received awards including the American Film Festival's first place award for Best Amateur Documentary.

Even though the Screen Society film brought screen painting to the attention of many people, today this folk art tradition continues to decline. It is estimated that there are fewer than 3,000 painted screens in Baltimore. Fortunately, a handful of artists in Baltimore are determined not to let this unique tradition die.

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