Baltimore’s painted screens: beyond the bungalow

Exhibition and book mine a city tradition for meaning and memories

screen painters 1

Opening weekend visitors checking out “Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore and Beyond” at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Some might look at the painted screens of Baltimore and see kitsch or simple decoration. Many don’t really notice them at all.

But in 1974, folklorist Elaine Eff saw them and realized they were a window on the soul of a city.

Back in the days when marble steps were for scrubbing and socializing, rowhouse dwellers gave these painted depictions of red-roofed cottages, a pond and swimming swans pride of place – installing them in the single street-facing first-floor window.

Against the harsh city streetscape, the screens’ bucolic imagery was a touch of the old country for the Germans, Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, Irish and Italians working in mills, factories and the waterfront.

And they were cheap, as filmmaker John Waters points out in the 1989 documentary you can see running on a continuous loop at the new show Eff has assembled at the Maryland Institute College of Art, a wild and epic display of her lifework. (It’s called Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore and Beyond.)

“If they would make their price a thousand dollars, they would be written up in the New York Times,” the young Waters says. “But because they are $30, people say they can’t be art.”

Different From Anywhere Else

At a party to celebrate the show that opened this weekend and Eff’s definitive new book, “The Painted Screens of Baltimore, an Urban Folk Art Revealed,” television producer and former Baltimore reporter David Simon tried to explain what the unique tradition gives to its hometown.

In Elaine Eff's 1989 painted screens  documentary, John Waters explains why they're so Baltimore. (Photo by Fern Shen)

In Elaine Eff’s 1989 painted screens documentary, John Waters explains why they’re so Baltimore. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“The feeling of being someplace that matters, someplace that’s different from anywhere else and it’s someplace that you want to go,” Simon said, standing with his wife and event co-host Laura Lippman.

For nearly four decades, painted screens have been Eff’s codex, her double helix or, as she calls them, her Rosebud.

She’s been collecting them, promoting them, researching their origins in the U.S. and Europe, tracking down, interviewing and befriending the screen painters and the people who hire them, leading tours of painted screens in the city, co-founding the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore and encouraging people who want to learn the technique and keep the tradition alive.

“To have found it, to have recognized it for what it is,” Simon said, turning to Eff Saturday night, “is a real prize, it’s a real triumph.”

Blaze Starr and the Universe

Those who are familiar with the classic red-roof bungalow scene will see it in all its stylistic variations at this exhibition. But they may be surprised by all the other subjects the artists selected:

There are cats and dogs, three-masted sailing ships, Elvis, the racy pin-up model Bettie Page, arabbers, Blaze Starr, the Shot Tower, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” a sci-fi depiction of the universe and much more.

"Red Bungalow," by Tom Lipka. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“Red Bungalow,” by Tom Lipka. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Ever the individualist, screen painter Johnny Eck departed from the strict conventions of the meme by painting blue roofs on his bungalows.

That’s just a smidgen, by the way, of what’s unique about Eck, the fabled Baltimore sideshow performer whose physical condition – he was essentially born without the lower half of his body – appears to have emboldened him to take on screen painting, sculpture, acting, race-car driving, operating a Punch and Judy show and more.

(“The Amazing Johnny Eck,” a companion show across the hall running concurrently with “Picture Windows,” includes more than 200 photographs, drawings and objects from Eck’s life.)

Founding Family

Eck and many of the city’s other artists learned their craft at William Oktavec’s “Art Shop” in East Baltimore – this First Family of Screen Painting is heavily featured in the show.

So intertwined were the four generations of Oktavecs in the evolving tradition, as they inspired and mentored others, that Eff has hung for visitors a kind of family tree to keep it all straight.

Screen painter Jenny Campbell of New Orleans (by way of Essex) gave a demonstration Sunday. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Screen painter Jenny Campbell of New Orleans (by way of Essex) gave a demonstration Sunday. (Photo by Fern Shen)

"The King," on a screen. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“The King,” on a screen by Ben Richardson. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Regarded as the art’s modern local founding father, the Bohemian-born Oktavec 100 years ago made what appears to have been the city’s first painted screen on his grocery store at the corner of Collington and Ashland avenues (an area now mostly cleared of its old rowhouses).

Eff has included the shop’s Art Deco sign in the show, as well as paint, airbrushes and other tools.

She also includes the results of her research into the tradition’s origins in other cities and in Europe, including a 1726 trade card for John Brown of London advertising “blinds for windows made and curiously painted on canvas, silk or wire.”

Why the art form found favor in England, Europe and other parts of Victorian America (in cities such as Boston) and then disappeared until the Oktavec era, is a mystery Eff leaves unsolved.

The Man with the Collapsible Stool

But in the show and in her 255-page book, Eff’s tenderest feelings are reserved for the people whose lives these curious creations illuminate.

There are the self-taught artists like Ben Richardson who painted screens for beer money or extra cash “to pay my water bill or do some marketing.” There’s screen painter Charles Bowman, who was also an accomplished fiddler player and the man who came up with the catch phrase, “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.”

And there are the recollections of artist Dee Herget, who remembers being fascinated with the man with the collapsible stool who worked her neighborhood yelling, “Paint your screens!”

Another gallery at MICA is devoted to circus sideshow performer, screen painter, illusionist and artist, Johnny Eck. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Another gallery at MICA is devoted to circus sideshow performer, screen painter, illusionist and artist, Johnny Eck. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“All you could do in those stupid rowhouses was play on the sidewalk and marble steps,” Herget recalled for Eff. “No toys.”

The book is chock full of lore Eff has collected over the decades, including the tale of the short-lived painted screen installed at the Governor’s Mansion by William Donald Schaefer’s “first friend,” Hilda Mae Snoops.

“If Hilda Mae wants to live in a rowhouse on Eastern Avenue, she should go back to Eastern Avenue,” a curator huffed at the time.

You See Out, They Can’t See In

Eff’s own story could be included in the book, including the saga of getting the lavishly-illustrated book published. Turned down by the John Hopkins University Press, it was published by the University Press of Mississippi with support from a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. (It’s designed by Kristen Spilman.)

In its pages, Eff is able to mine the subtler and not sentimental meaning of the tradition.

Folklorist Elaine Eff has been researching and cherishing the painted screen tradition since 198 . (Photo by Fern Shen)

Folklorist Elaine Eff has been researching and cherishing the painted screen tradition since 1974 . (Photo by Fern Shen)

For instance, as they beckon by creating a kind of outdoor art gallery, painted screens also set privacy boundaries with the neighbors.

From the inside, the screen appears unadorned and the residents can see out. From the outside, all that’s visible is the artwork.

“Painted screens are a gift to the streets” Eff writes, but they’re also “one community’s way of saying ‘Enjoy the view, but keep moving.’”


The exhibit, which is free, runs through March 16, 2014. It’s in the Meyerhoff Gallery at MICA’s Fox Building, 1303 W. Mount Royal Avenue). Open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays noon to 5 p.m.

Elaine Eff's documentary on painted screens, featuring John Waters, Fred Lazarus, Councilman Dominic  "Mimi" Di Pietro (shown here) runs on a continuous loop in a Baltimore "living room." (Photo by Fern Shen)

Elane Eff’s documentary on painted screens, featuring filmmaker John Waters, Mayor William Donald Schaefer, MICA president Fred Lazarus IV, City Councilman Dominic “Mimi” Di Pietro (shown here) and others, runs on a continuous loop in a Baltimore “living room.” (Photo by Fern Shen)

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  • Carol Ott

    When I first moved to Baltimore, it was fun to try to find them every time I went anywhere in SE Baltimore. Even now, 13 years later, I still look for them among the vacants.

    • baltimorebrew

      If you have a shot of one on a vacant, Carol, that would be, though sad, also kind of interesting…….Love to see it!


      • Carol Ott

        I had one, before I started the vacant project — it was on a house in what realtors call “Upper Fells”. Unfortunately the file was on my laptop that was stolen when my home was burglarized in 2008.

  • Rocky_Ground

    Painted screens are one of the wonderfully weird things about Baltimore that we should document and celebrate. Kudos to Elaine E. for making sure we don’t lose this folk art.

  • KnowNothingParty

    “Painted screens” are a unique and snazzy part of “old Baltimore”, and are not part of the cultural make up in Baltimore today. The screens and this story are heart warming and heart breaking at the same time when we think of the time when Baltimore was a real city -and we loved her.

  • Tom Gregory

    If “Painted screens are a gift to the streets” then Elaine is truly a gift to Baltimore. Thank you darlin’ from one of your biggest admirers!

  • PigtownDesign

    I did a painted screen for my old house in Pigtown. But it was a contemporary version.

    • ushanellore

      Can we please see a picture of it? Would love to see a contemporary one posted here.

  • Monica Broere

    There are a few of us renegade painters innovating within the tradition also featured in the show-go see it!

    • baltimorebrew

      Thanks Monica – if you have a photo of one of your pieces in the show and want to send it we’ll put it up on The Brew. There was a lot to see…..! -fs

  • ushanellore

    The Window Screens of Baltimore

    The old ways gone hang on in certain parts,
    some folks don’t let them die —
    what doesn’t happen anymore they find,
    and mine from the shafts of memory-
    in cityscapes they emerge with treasures
    that used to be commonplace–letting go
    is not in their nature—
    they want the picture windows back….

    inside the mundanity
    of ordinary lives once there was light–
    there was a love of colors bright,
    in times past streets glowed
    that love hung on windows showed
    however poor the laborers–
    from the factories and the mills–
    they stored in their weary hearts a yearning
    for the finer things of life–

    grimy and gored,
    homeward bound they stood
    on the sidewalks musing the hardness
    of their calloused hands,
    the many bumps on their roads–
    their tunnels long and dark–
    their work unsung but repeated
    everyday to the marching orders
    of hard taskmasters–
    the melancholy of that situation,
    would have ached their bodies more–
    if not for the window screens–

    if not for the window screens–
    the streets would have been sadder
    than their fears for the future–
    sadder than the shadow of their mortality,
    in dogged pursuit of their fleeing feet–
    sadder than the fall heralding the winter–
    the cold clinging to the air–
    swirling in their bones–
    chilling their cracked dreams–

    if not for the window screens
    where the trees are for ever green,
    the houses painted red–
    cozy in their sheen,
    fronted by waterfalls and lakes,
    swans necking in the breeze–
    blue mountains in the background–
    the skies for ever clear–

    If not for the window screens
    that pretend all is well–
    happiness not snatched
    from the jaws of grief,
    calm not an illusion
    in the limpid pond–
    the hologram not a lie,

    yet, who the devil cares,
    they soothe the wounds
    the daily grind bares–
    deep in the muscles the pain
    begs for balms–

    and such were the window screens,
    massages for the mind,
    making museums of the streets
    their luster waking drunks from their torpor,
    distracting children from their play,
    ladies from their gossip,
    startling men benumbed by routine
    and amusing the rich who stumbled by…

    not a surprise, that some folks won’t let them die…

    Usha Nellore

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