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You Can See Out, but They Can't See in: Painted Screens in Baltimore

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December 13, 2013 

Credit: Blue Bungalow screen by Johnny Eck, 1982, Elaine Eff collection, Edwin Remsberg photograph.Ponds and swans, 'the red bungalow', Baltimore rowhomes: these were a few of the familiar scenes depicted and painted on window screens. 

Painted screens date back to the early 1700s. And although they are most numerous in Baltimore, they originated in London. They began to pop up in the windows of Baltimore rowhomes starting in 1913, after a trained butcher-turned-artist painted the screen doors of  his family's grocery and butcher shop.

Dr. Elaine Eff, a folklorist and the world's leading authority on the history of screen painting says after people began to see the privacy that the screens provided in Oktavec's shop, demand started to build.

"Everyone else said I want one, I want one," Eff said. "And everyone said I'll have what she's having."

In this interview conducted at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Tom Hall and Eff walk through the exhibition that Eff is curating, PICTURE WINDOWS: The Painted Screens of Baltimore and BeyondEff tells Hall about the process of painting screens, the evolution of the art form, and we learn more about Oktavec-who is considered the 'grandfather' of painted screens. 

Then, Hall takes a tour through another exhibition at MICA, The Amazing Johnny Eck that is devoted to the life of Eck, a Baltimore screen painter and sideshow performer. Jeffrey Pratt Gordon is the founder of the Johnny Eck Museum and the curator of the exhibition.   

Johnny on Stool, hand-tinted photo by Johnny Eck, circa 1927. Credit: Johnny Eck Museum.Gordon tells Hall about Eck's numerous talents and why he chose to showcase some of Eck's most personal possessions.  

"I felt a certain sense of responsibility to really show Johnny in all the ways that he was and I think it's clear in the show that I have respect for this man." 

More on the screens and the people who painted them 

Eff has written a new book called The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed. She is also the co-founder of The Painted Screen Society of Baltimore.  

There’s an opening reception for these two exhibitions tonight at 5:00 p.m. in the Fox Building at MICA. The exhibitions are up until March 16.

Produced by Jamyla Kay-jamylakay@wypr.org

 

 

William Oktavec, Red Bungalow, circa 1920. Credit: Maryland Historical Society

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 E-mail: mdmorning@wypr.org

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