Explore Washington D.C.

Picture Windows: Baltimore's Native Art

The urban folk art phenomenon of painted screens on view at MICA and museums real and virtual

Almost every guidebook to the city explains how “outsider” artists inspired and now fill Baltimore’s quirky-wonderful American Visionary Art Museum. But long before a museum honored any of them, the city loved and encouraged its own “outside artists”—local talents who apply paint and imagination to the screens of doors and windows in eastside’s ethnic neighborhoods. 

Today these screens still grace some city row houses (below, a window on South Chester Street), and practitioners still meet as The Painted Screen Society of Baltimore, Inc. Such artists work for a little money (or not) but mostly for love of the tradition. Now through March 16, their “canvases” appear at The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), in "Picture Windows...The Painted Screens of Baltimore and Beyond."

Chester St screen
A screened window on Chester Street (Unknown artist, ©Elaine Eff)

Exhibition curator and folklorist Elaine Eff has written "The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed" (University Press of Mississippi). Her book shapes the show from the origins of wire to 21st-century visions. Screens depict romantic vistas or familiar, calendar-worthy scenes of Baltimore but also celebs like the “Love Me Tender” Elvis (1980) by current master Ben Richardson. The X-Rated Gallery 8 holds a few that once caused varying outrage—religious images and pin-up girls. 

Six of the screens represent the career of William Oktavec. In 1913 he painted images (cuts of beef, spare ribs, lettuce, cucumbers and carrots) on wire mesh doors at his grocery—yes, advertisement and ventilation but also a way to see out without being seen. 

Of the 24 artists here, two belong to the “inventor’s”  family—Oktavec’s son Richard and grandson John. The latter has re-imagined that original grocery screen, the first of the perhaps 100,000 screens painted by the senior Oktavec, his workers and others for the folks in Canton, Fells Point and Little Bohemia. 

Also at MICA through March 16, "The Amazing Johnny Eck" honors a painter trained by Oktavec. Eck, however, is better known as a showman. Born with what appeared to be only an upper torso, Eck (1911-1991) toured with sideshows, had a role in Tod Browning’s cult film "Freaks," raced cars and performed as a magician, orchestra conductor, gymnast, sculptor and puppeteer. Curator Jeffrey Pratt Gordon has drawn memorabilia and ephemera from his own Johnny Eck Museum, an online collection. 

The American Visionary Art Museum acknowledges these creative spirits by permanently displaying several screen paintings. Also the Baltimore branch of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! devotes a space to Eck, his showbiz career and art. Screens he painted include an unlikely landscape (snow-capped mountains beyond a windmill) plus an angel flying across 
a starry sky.