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First comprehensive painted screen exhibition highlights more than 300 years and two dozen artists' works
William Oktavec, Red Bungalow, circa 1920, courtesy Maryland Historical Society.

BALTIMORE, MD.- Maryland Institute College of Art marks the centennial of Baltimore’s tradition of painting vivid images on row house screens with the exhibition PICTURE WINDOWS … The Painted Screens of Baltimore and Beyond on view through Sunday, March 16, 2014, in the Fox Building’s Meyerhoff Gallery (1303 W. Mount Royal Ave.). Together with Maryland folklorist Elaine Eff, co-founder of the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore, MICA presents for the first time a comprehensive look at the history of screen painting—a functional and ornamental art with roots in 18th-century London, Victorian America and early 20th-century Baltimore.

PICTURE WINDOWS is the first exhibition of its kind to show this beloved practical folk art alongside its antecedents from Europe and America, as well as today’s high-tech iterations. Included in the exhibition are window and door screens, festive masks, construction mesh and bus advertising—objects that can provide both privacy and ventilation.

“PICTURE WINDOWS examines a truly democratic impulse—an art of, by and for a community—the acid test for a true folk art,” Eff said.

Beginning 100 years ago, the streets of East Baltimore became an outdoor museum of brightly colored paintings on woven wire window and door screens. Today, painted screens are recognized as a unique contemporary folk art found in great numbers only in Baltimore. The exhibition examines the elements that make this homegrown work of art an important part of the city’s streetscapes and how one-way visibility allows you to see out while no one can see in—a cherished secret of row house harmony.

The exhibition includes the work of four generations of painters and dabblers who turned block after block of their neighbors’ row houses into works of art. Included in PICTURE WINDOWS are works by William Oktavec, the grocer who introduced the art form in 1913 by painting a still life on the woven wire door screen of his corner store in the heart of East Baltimore’s Czech community.

Among more than two dozen artists featured in the exhibition, many have ties to MICA, including Richard Oktavec, William’s son, who studied lettering and drafting; Ruth Chrysam Fahey ’39 (costume design), who apprenticed with William Oktavec as a screen painter and continued her career later in New York as a fashion illustrator; Tilghman Hemsley ’84 (painting), an employee of Oktavec family’s church restoration business; and Ben Richardson, Dee Herget and Frank Cipolloni, all of whom took classes at Maryland Institute decades ago.

The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed (256 pages, 300 illustrations), written by Eff and published by University Press of Mississippi, became available this fall in area bookstores, including the MICA College Store (1200 Mount Royal Ave.) and the Ivy Bookshop (6080 Falls Rd.). Filmmaker John Waters called the book “an un-ironic (thank God) treasure-trove of amazingly researched information that elevates the most Balto-centric one-time row house kitsch to its proper place in art history.”

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