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Reviving Baltimore's urban folk art: Painted window screen tradition offers row house privacy

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BALTIMORE - Baltimore is known for its row houses — modest brick buildings lining sidewalks so narrow, you can see right through the front windows into people's homes.

To add privacy, window screens were sometimes painted over with pictures of idyllic rural scenes: red-roofed cottages with winding paths and ponds with swans. In their mid-20th century heyday, painted screens might have covered 200,000 windows around Baltimore, according to Elaine Eff, author of "The Painted Screens of Baltimore."

"They used to be everywhere," she said. "It was the coolest thing. Every house might have a dozen painted screens."

Now Eff and others in Baltimore, from artists to community development groups, are reviving this simple urban folk art. In some neighbourhoods, businesses hire artists to create customized screens for storefronts. You can also find the occasional vintage screen in a window on a quiet street, faded but attesting to the tradition's authenticity. If you're inside a house, you can see out through the screens; you just can't see in from the street.

Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum has a permanent exhibit about painted screens with a documentary and re-creation of a row house. The Painted Screen Society of Baltimore — — hosts events promoting the art, sells a $5 map of where to find screens and can arrange customized tours. Or go hunting on your own along Elliot Street in the Canton neighbourhood between Conkling and Linwood, or on Eastern Avenue in the vicinity of Gough Street in Highlandtown . You can buy ready-made hand-painted screens at Razzo, a home decor store in Hampden (911 W. 36th St.), or for do-it-yourselfers, the Painted Screen Society sells a how-to DVD.

Eff says there are about 1,000 painted screens in homes now, and credits the centennial of the tradition, marked last year, with revitalizing the custom. "It's growing, and that's the beauty of it," Eff said.

Many say the tradition was started by a Czech immigrant, William Oktavec, who originated the red-roofed bungalow motif with a pond and two swans.

"It was where popular culture met the immigrant mind," Eff said. "People said it was a longing for the homeland, but that's not true. It was just, 'Isn't it nice to have that greenery, that country scene,' or 'I'd rather be in the country than in the middle of the city.' People would ask Oktavec, 'Is this where you used to live?' and he'd say, 'No, people just hand me greeting cards or calendars with pictures they want.'"

Decades ago, folks might charge 50 cents or a dollar or two for a painted screen. Today, depending on what buyers want, artists might charge $25 to $500. In Highlandtown, painted screens are part of a community revitalization effort. Amanda Smit-Peters, the neighbourhood's Main Street manager, is promoting painted screens in the commercial district. While screens don't advertise businesses outright, they often have a whimsical connection. Cardinal Chiropractic, 423 S. Conkling St., has screens depicting a pair of birds — red-crested cardinals. Screens at Really Raw Honey, 3725 Gough St., have bumblebees.

Highlandtown resident Monica Broere, a retired public school art teacher, paints screens that include bold, abstract graphic elements, but she also winks at the old motifs by including swans. "I've been painting screens but my own way — traditional and contemporary," she says.

Some people collect vintage screens. Highlandtown resident Christopher Fugate says he has close to 40. "I've loved them since I was a kid," he said.

Eff says the screens are as much a part of Baltimore as the city's row houses. "As long as there is a row house," she said, "people will have a need for privacy and painted screens."

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