Thirty years ago Dee Herget quit her job as a telephone operator in City Hall: She was losing her hearing. She decided to try painting. Though she had no training in art, it seemed easy, so she bought paint and brushes and did her first scene – on a window screen.
With that, she had taken her first step into an art, or craft, peculiar to this old city on the Chesapeake Bay.
"When I look at it now I can't believe I painted something so terrible," she recalls.
Undeterred, she took to her basement. Six weeks later she emerged confident enough to put this ad in the newspaper: "Painted screens are not dead. They are alive and living in Highlandtown."
"I got one call," she says. "It came in July 1977. I placed the ad in April."
It wasn't encouraging. "She only wanted me to touch up a painted screen she already owned, an Oktavec. When I saw it I thought, I could never do this."
Today, Ms. Herget is renowned in the little-known universe of screen painting. She receives requests for her window screens from Australia, France, Hawaii, and, of course, her neighbors. During my visit to her bayside house, a woman arrived with a screen for Herget to paint. "I want the blue heron," she said, indicating a picture on Herget's porch, which serves as her gallery.
Herget is one of only two "master screen painters" among the hundred or so practitioners of the craft. The man whose work so intimidated her, William Oktavec, died in 1956. He's revered as the originator of this peculiar folkloric expression that is so profoundly of and about Baltimore.
A Czech immigrant who reached Baltimore in 1909, Mr. Oktavec opened a grocery store. He found that the summer sun dried out the fruits and vegetables he displayed. To diminish its effect, he painted images of apples, melons, cabbage, etc., on the screen covering his inventory. People were charmed. Oktavec realized he had something: He painted a screen with a picture of a red-roofed bungalow and two swans in a pond, and sold it. He painted more, sold more, then opened an art shop that his sons inherited, along with their father's skill at screen painting.
To this day, the red-roofed cottage, or variations of it – with mountains, waterfalls, "anything bucolic," as Herget puts it – remains the guiding image for most screen painters, though some try other themes such as ships or portraits.
There's a reason for this, though one which may be losing its imperative as Baltimore changes. Through much of the 20th century the red-roofed cottage – which Oktavec got from a greeting card – was said to represent a dream cherished within Baltimore's blue-collar neighborhoods, especially those on the east side of the city.
"These pictures, these screens, seemed just right in East Baltimore," muses Peter Hilsee, of the American Visionary Arts Museum, which seeks the quirky art of the untrained genius. The museum is showing works by 11 screen painters, displayed in the windows and doors of Baltimore row houses, with marble steps, faux stone and brick facades, reconstructed inside the museum.
"Perhaps these screens depicted a way of life they couldn't have," Mr. Hilsee says – "they" being those who painted them and those who bought them for as little as a half dollar.
It was working man's art. "These painters roamed the neighborhoods during the Depression years," says Elaine Eff, Maryland's state folklorist. "In the '40s and '50s there were probably 100,000 painted screens throughout row house Baltimore."
Ms. Eff came as a catalyst to Baltimore's folk culture. Though born in botanically lush environs far from the brick and concrete precincts that came to fascinate her, she brought academic expertise and deep sympathy for things folkloric, especially screen painting. In 1985 she assembled the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore to call attention to the craft that, in the words of one academic, was "born and grew here from whole cloth, invented, as it were, by one resourceful resident."
As Baltimore's folklorist then, Eff enabled the production of two films about screen painting. She finds thoughts of its demise unpleasant.
"We are very much at ebb," she admits. "But we also witness revivals." She's working on one, in collaboration with the museum; she hopes next year to take a census of current screen painters.
A few younger artists carry on the tradition here, such as Jennifer Crouse. She strays from the norm, painting screens backed by black cloth, to be hung inside, not in the window frame. Another, Jenny Campbell, paints streetscapes with photographic realism, and portraits of late Baltimore characters like H.L. Mencken and jazz pianist Eubie Blake.
Today you can find hundreds of decorated doors and windows in East Baltimore. Clearly they still appeal to the locals, and tour buses occasionally glide through the streets. At the Hatton Senior Center, every window frames a picture by the greats among the post-Oktavec generation: Leroy Bennett, Johnny Eck, Ted and Ben Richardson, Greg Reillo, Frank Abremski, Dee Herget, Tom Lipka – the last two, the only ones left.
But circumstances other than attrition among those who helped stimulate a surge of popularity have taken their toll. The painted screen no longer fulfills its original purpose: Before air conditioners became affordable in muggy Baltimore, the screens allowed people to leave doors and windows open without worrying about someone on the sidewalk looking in. You can't see what's behind the image on a painted screen from outside, but you can see what's out there from the inside, if not the image itself.
But "the worst blow to the art," says Eff, was demographic. Canton, a white, aging, working-class community, was invaded by younger people, couples with money and their new notions of chic; they snapped up the row houses and trashed the painted screens.
"They likened the screens to an Elvis painting on black satin," says Eff, "the worst kind of kitsch." So much was lost, but some was saved by locals with an affection for the past and a willingness to rummage through trash cans.
Not every social or technological change in Baltimore proved ill. The Internet, for instance, gave it a boost. Though screen painting as a craft hasn't moved far from its East Baltimore cradle, Herget's client list is global, and Mr. Lipka says over half his sales come through his website.
Lipka, a genial man with sparse white hair combed in a style recalling the 1950s, has completed more than 5,000 paintings. He promised his wife he'd fill every window of their house, 18 in all, with a painted screen. (He's three shy.)
Lipka personifies the Baltimore screen painter. He began without formal training, as most did, by watching someone else. His someone else was the late Alonzo Parks, "one of the great unsung masters of screen art ... who went door to door and bar to bar, painting walls, mirrors, vestibules, and screens for the price of a drink."
Lipka remains loyal to Oktavec. His painting is highly stylized and polished, his trees plump and billowing, his skies hopeful. The red-roofed bungalow is there. While every Lipka painting recalls every other, they're not repetitive.
The painted screens of East Baltimore provided more than privacy; displayed in their abundance they softened the monotony of the treeless urban terrain. Their effect on people driving through town was "surreal as you glanced at the windows of a house on a side street and saw through to a pond with swans, a red-roofed cottage, trees, clouds, and blue sky," wrote Frederick and Mary Fried in "America's Forgotten Folk Arts." "It was the surrealism of the utterly commonplace ... as in a painting by Magritte ... a mountain peak, a forest glade with deer, a waterfall ... all framed in windows and doors."
It was soft, like a local's greeting: "Welcome to Balmer, Hon."
[Editor's note: The spelling of the name Oktavec has been corrected.]