Painted Screen Society of Baltimore
screen painters have received Folklife Apprenticeship Awards multiple times
How does a community tradition begin? For the painted screens of Baltimore, it began with meat and produce. Or rather, a salesman painting the screens of his store with images of meat and produce to attract customers. Those first colorful screens painted on woven wire in 1913 by William Oktavec, a Czech grocer, were admired by neighbors. They liked the aesthetic qualities and appreciated that a painted screen (you can see out, but people can’t see in) maintains a semblance of privacy while also creating much-needed air flow in the pre-air conditioner summertime in Baltimore’s cramped row home communities.
Oktavec opened a shop in 1922 to sell screens, which he did by the thousands. At their most popular, in the 1940s and ’50s, Oktavec and other artists supplied upwards of 100,000 painted screens to homeowners, who thought their idealized, bucolic scenes were an essential feature of a modern Baltimore home. Soon the popularity of painted screens slowly started to wane, aided by the ubiquity of air conditioners, changing definitions of modernity, and changing demographics.
The Baltimore Painted Screen Society was founded in 1985 to preserve this tradition. Several current and past members have received Folklife Apprenticeship Awards from Maryland Traditions to teach others this distinctive tradition. A number of current painters learned from William Oktavec’s students or imitators. Many have developed their own styles; times change and so do painted screens. The society acts as a clearinghouse for information and classes, hosts workshops and tours, and facilitates demonstrations, artist residencies, and community outreach.