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THE CLARION The Museum of American Folk Art 49W.53rd St., New York, New York 10019 Number 6

Spring 1976

FATHER TIME, Polychromed wood mechanical figure. Collection of Museum of American Folk Art.This piece will be on view at the Whitney Museum exhibition 200 Years of American Sculpture opening March 16th, 1976.

Dear Members and Fellow Trustees, I have the sad duty to inform you that one of our beloved co-trustees, Stewart Gregory, died on January 11, 1976. I feel a great personal grief which I am sure is shared by all of you who knew him and by all of those who love folk art. Our first kinship developed when he and I were elected together to the Board of Trustees at a meeting where our founder and former chairman, Joseph Martinson, presided. Stewart had a great enthusiasm and optimism that he infused into the whole organization, and he always had a solution. Following Joseph Martinson's death, he played a decisive role in helping the Museum to get back on its feet. He should have been its President but preferred to play a different role, accepting only the role of Vice President. He also helped the Museum with loans from his great private collection, which culminated in the beautiful show AN EYE ON AMERICA in 1972. This exhibition's catalogue is still one of the best sellers at the Muse urn. Stewart lived a life surrounded by his collection. The meetings we had at his house in Wilton,Connecticut were charmed by giant decoy herons, paintings of beautiful women painted by great artists of folk art, barbershop figures, and his good eye for folk art allowed him to have the most unusual and rare watercolors, whimsical figures and even a decoy seagull, seemingly walking up a stairway in his house. The floors were covered with hooked rugs, many of which have not only been in our Museum, but in many exhibitions all around the country. Even his garden was decorated with folk art swans,figureheads and benches. Stewart will never be forgotten because of all these lovely things which will be a part of him forever as they were a part of him when he was alive. Barbara Johnson President Board of Trustees


Dear Membership, It is my pleasure to announce the election of Phyllis D. Collins to the Board of Trustees. Mrs. Collins, also a Trustee of the Groton School, is an active and energetic person who will bring fresh ideas to the Museum. She has already made her presence felt by assisting with the successful fall House Tour. The Board of Trustees and the Director have begun a FRIENDS COMMITTEE. I wish to thank Mrs. Ronald Lauder for her leadership in starting the Committee. The FRIENDS COMMITTEE has been formed to aid the growth and welfare of the Museum. Members of the Friends are elected to the Committee from the Museum's membership. The long range goals of the group are to expand the Museum's activities and to make the Museum a more valuable working institution for the New York area and the nation. Specific goals are to double the Museum's membership by September 1976 and to enlist the Museum's members as active participants in specific events and the daily activities of the Museum. Members of the FRIENDS COMMITTEE are: Helaine Fendelman, Interim Chairman Jana Klauer, Interim Secretary Myra Behringer Dan Cowin

Burton Fendelman Ellin Gordon Phyllis Haders Joan Johnson Harriet B. Marple Mr. and Mrs. Paul L. Oppenheimer Samuel Pennington Richard and Diane Ravitch G. L. Reeves, Jr. Scudder Smith Jean-Claude Suares Eleanora Walker Riki Zuriff Finally, I would like to announce that additional membership benefits are being offered for categories above Full membership. On the back of the CLARION the new membership form is printed. It is our hope that many of the Full members will increase their membership and take advantage of these benefits in the higher membership category. Barbara Johnson President Board of Trustees

TRAMP ART September 9—December 31, 1975 The TRAMP ART exhibition was the first of its kind. Organized by Helaine Fendelman, TRAMP ART was such a success that the Museum extended its run for an extra month, through December 31st. All enjoyed viewing the many and varied pieces of what to many was an entirely new art form. The chip carved frames, armoires, desks and whimsies made an unusual display in our Museum galleries and prompted several visitors to try their hand at carving saved up cigar boxes and making their own whimsical TRAMP ART. Mrs. Fendelman's book,TRAMP ART, which was published by E. P. Dutton and Co. in conjunction with the show is available at the Museum bookshop and through the mail. The cost for mail orders is $5.56 for members, $7.95 for non-members. TRAMP ART is now traveling. It can be seen at the Michigan Antiques Show, April 2, 3, and 4 at the University of Michigan's Crisler Arena, at Burdines Department Store in Miami, Florida from mid-May through June, and at the Cranbrook Academy in September. At this time, arrangements are also being finalized for TRAMP ART to travel to several other locations. Announcements will be made in future CLARIONS. 3

THE ENCHANTED WORLD OF DOLLS This Christmas season the Museum of American Folk Art and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey cosponsored THE ENCHANTED WORLD OF DOLLS. THE ENCHANTED WORLD OF DOLLS was more than an exhibit — it was a holiday festival featuring over 200 international dolls, doll houses and miniature rooms as well as demonstrations of folk art, puppet shows and programs of singers and dancers. The exhibit was organized by Micki McCabe. Highlights of THE ENCHANTED WORLD OF DOLLS included the original Winnie the Pooh figures from the collection of E.P. Dutton and Co., unusual dolls and doll houses from the collections of Mrs. Lenon Hoyte from Auntie Len's Museum and Flora Gill Jacobs, and the first paper doll commercially published in the United States from the collection of Herbert Hosmer.

AMERICAN CAT-ALOGUE January 13—March 26, 1976 CATS,CATS, CATS!

Be sure to visit AMERICAN CAT-ALOGUE: The Cat In American Folk Art, which is currently breaking all attendance and sales records at the Museum. 122 pieces which depict the domestic cat have been assembled — quilts, weathervanes, sculpture, paintings, hooked rugs and a variety of other folk art forms,to show the cat in all his different personalities — charming,cunning,scheming, playful or cuddly. On view are two enormous cats — a Dentzel carrousel figure and a large black and white papier-mâché cat as well as a variety of small and medium sized cats. Some of the finest American folk painters have masterpieces in the show: Ammi Phillips, Joseph H. Davis, John Kane, Joseph Chandler, Morris Hirshfield, John Bradley, Caleb Purrington and Sturtevant J. Hamblen. A valuable adjunct to the exhibition is our catalogue, AMERICAN CAT-ALOGUE, a paperbound book published in association with Avon Books, fully illustrated with color and black and white photographs of all 122 objects in the exhibition. In addition it includes amusing folktales and superstitions about cats. It is available at the Museum for $4.95, $5.95 by mail ($3.96 or $4.96 by mail order to members). For lovers of the real thing we suggest you visit the Invitational Cat Show at Madison Square Garden, sponsored by the Knickerbocker Cat Fanciers on March 20 through 21st. The Museum will have a booth at the Cat Show where we will be selling Cat books and posters and we hope you will visit. 4

MANHATTAN HOUSE TOUR BENEFIT November 22, 1975 The first Manhattan House Tour Benefit was a great success. The tour was organized by our trustee, Mrs. Ronald Lauder and a committee which included Mrs. Phyllis Haders and Mrs. Eugene Zuriff. Over 250 members and friends took part in the tour through five houses, all beautifully decorated with American Art. The tour culminated in a reception at trustee Andy Warhol's Factory where guests were able to buy items from the Museum bookshop and take part in psychic readings organized by Frank Andrews. A beautiful red and white double Irish chain quilt, donated by Mrs. Phyllis Haders was raffled.

The Painted Window Screens of Baltimore, Maryland

Elaine Eff

Baltimore, Maryland is known to the casual observer as a stop on the Penn Central Railroad between New York and Washington, D.C. and as the home of football's occasional World Champion Baltimore Colts. It is also known as the city where hot Chesapeake Bay steamed crabs delight the palette of the adventuring seafood lover and where block after block of red brick two to three story row houses silently dominate an uninspired monotonous urban landscape. The white marble steps which lead to many of these structures have long been a trademark of this city of 900,000 people. The image of the proud, industrious row house dwellers out scrubbing their marble steps is often the subject of pictorial or literary accounts (Figure 1). This setting early in the century produced an indigenous folk art form which continues today. Wiremesh window screens, literally canvases with holes, have been transformed into painted Elaine Eff is a folklorist studying for her master's degree in the Cooperstown Graduate Program. She has done field research for the Smithsonian Institution and for the Georgia State Council on the Arts. Recently, she gave a paper on Baltimore's screen painting to the American Folklore Society.

masterpieces (Figure 2). The wiremesh window screen was originally conceived to keep flies and mosquitoes out of the house and later was adapted by Baltimoreans for the sake of personal privacy. Painted screens can be found on thousands of houses in the few square mile area of East Baltimore. Here the common window screen, sporting a hand painted land or seascape has become indispensible to the homeowner and an object of uncommon beauty to those who pass outdoors. Since the time of Lord Baltimore's seventeenth century royal grant, Maryland has been a haven for Europeans who sought freedom to follow the Catholic faith. In this same tradition, East Baltimore (pronounced "Balamer" by its longtime residents) has been a destination for many Italian, Polish, and Bohemian workers who emigrated here for employment on the waterfront or in numerous light and heavy industries surrounding the area. These blue collar residents take meticulous care of their individual row houses and surrounding neighborhoods. They have gone to great pains over the years to maintain and remodel their twenty-foot wide housefronts. "Colorado formstone," in fashion for decades, has rapidly covered up the original brick exteriors. New style windows or cornices appear as styles and fortunes change. At a glance, East Baltimore could 5

easily be mistaken for Philadelphia or Wilmington, Delaware. But Baltimore residents have consistently demanded and displayed the painted window screens for well over half a century. Unconsciously, they have made their part of town unique, distinguishing it from the maze of row houses that crowd the urban cores of other cities on the east coast. Environmental folk art has emerged in the cities over the past decade as a cosmetic cure for urban blight. The production of murals and sculptures designed for abandoned lots and walls have been generously funded by local and federal granting institutions. Community involvement and a desire to end eyesores have been the motivating factors. Whether this artwork has any effect on neighborhood pride or appreciation is not entirely clear. The scale in most instances is monumental and dehumanizing. East Baltimore's contribution to environmental folk art, the painted screen, is on a personal scale and furthermore serves a practical purpose. The idea was originally conceived to prevent passersby whose eyes are level with the first floor windows from seeing inside the house. Since the houses are built directly on the sidewalk, the lack of privacy can be disturbing. The painted screen diverts the observer's eye causing him to see only the surface decoration and not the living room or bedroom beyond. No evidence of the exterior painting can be seen from inside. This convenient distraction works only in daylight or in an unilluminated room (Figures 3 and 4). It allows the inhabitants to keep their windows open on hot days without sacrificing privacy, light, or cooling breezes to a pulled shade or drawn curtain. The art of painting window screens was introduced to Baltimore in 1913 by William Oktavec, who emigrated there from Czechoslovakia via New York. He firmly believed until his Figure 1

Figure 2


death in 1956 that he "invented" the painted screen. Though it is entirely possible that Mr. Oktavec was responsible for its initial use in his East Baltimore neighborhood,investigation reveals that its precursors date back far earlier than he imagined. In 5000 B.C. the Chinese are alleged to have decorated cheesecloth with dragons, birds and flowers to hang in their windows in order to ward off evil spiritsl. The wiremesh screen as we know it today which was fabricated to replace cheesecloth as a seasonal windowcover was not invented until 1861. It was the creation of a Georgetown, Connecticut wire sieve manufacturer. When the Civil War considerably limited the market for sieves, the Gilbert and Bennett Company found itself with a surplus of woven wire cloth.They "took a chance, painted the stock gray and offered it for sale as window screening"2. A ready market rewarded the manufac- Figure 3 turers of the new product. Within a decade it was an indispensable household fixture, and shortly thereafter its decorative potential was recognized. During the Victorian era somberly painted wiremesh window screens were found in parlours from Boston to New Orleans, from London to Rome. The screen at this stage was merely another added attraction (or distraction) to the welldressed Victorian window which sported lace curtains, etched windows, stained glass panels, interior shutters and decorated window shades. A classical motif in monochromatic grays or golds was usually found on these late nineteenth century screens. Unfortunately few examples have survived (Figure 5). If a screen is not varnished annually, or repainted as the picture fades due to exposure to sunlight, it inevitably reverts to a nondescript wire mesh window screen. Consequently, it may be forgotten and ultimately discarded. The present scarcity of the nineteenth century screens in private houses and museum collections is probably due in great part to this neglect. It was only by coincidence that the author encountered two badly faded nineteenth century screens while cleaning a storage area of one museum's collection. Had she not been familiar with Figure 4 the contemporary Baltimore screens these, too, might have gone unrecognized. Attempts to locate additional specimens of this art form in cities where it was known to flourish have proven futile. The art of screen painting was seized on by late nineteenth century entrepreneurs who exploited it as an advertising medium as well as for privacy. Banks especially benefited from the oneway effect of the adorned screen. A Detroit company which specialized in wire cloth and ornamental wirework issued an 1874 catalogue featuring patterned and landscaped varieties — either custom made with the institution's name and logo or with imported designs sold by the square foot3. 1 M artha Millspaugh, "Ancient Lineage of Those Window Screens," Baltimore Sun, Sept. 7, 1947. 2 "The Great American Hardware Story;' Hardware Age, Vol. 212,No.7 (July 4,1975), p. 18. 3 "Victorian Window Embellishment:' Antiques, Vol. 37, No. 3,(March 1940), p.119.

Figure 5 7

Coincidentally, William Oktavec, the twentieth century creator of this folk art, initially conceived the painted screen for his own commercial enterprise. As the owner of a corner grocery store in East Baltimore, Mr. Oktavec customarily displayed his produce in artful pyramids outside his shop. The hot and humid Baltimore summer caused his masterpieces to perish, adversely affecting his inventory as well as the appeal of his goods. Consequently, he brought his living advertisement indoors and replaced the pyramids with a painted facsimile on the store's screen door. The realism he practiced in his painting style was both good and bad for his business. It was good for the fruits and vegetables rescued from the oppressive Baltimore heat. It was bad in that customers refused to believe that he was out of lettuce when they mistook the painted ones for the genuine article. Mr. Oktavec's first job in this country was demonstrator of the Brockmonde spraypaint airbrush. The limited art training he was receiving at nights in a New York school was not critical to the industrial applications he promoted for the company — spraying hard-to-paint objects like wicker furniture, window screens and electrical equipment. A secretary at the Newark, New Jersey offices where Oktavec worked complained to him one day of the sidewalk bystanders who continually harassed her while she worked at her desk by the window. Using his knowledge of paints and surfaces, the young Oktavec, then 24, solved her problem overnight by painting a vase of flowers and curtains on the outside of her screen. Several years later, Oktavec moved to Baltimore where he opened his grocery and inadvertently started a popular and practical neighborhood craze that would long outlive him. A customer, conscious of the one-way effect of the store's painted screen door requested that Oktavec copy a calendar picture of a red mill for her living room window screen. Her aim was to keep the idlers on her corner from looking in her window. The screen worked once the crowds stopped gathering to examine the new phenomenon, and Mr. Oktavec was swamped with orders from friends and neighbors. Before too long he sold his grocery and, fulfilling a life-time dream, opened an art shop where he specialized in restoration of religious statuary and paintings. He reserved the months of May and June for painting and retouching screens, completing as many as 300 in a single season. The subjects customers chose were dictated by Mr.Oktavec's repertoire of greeting card and calendar illustrations. By many definitions Oktavec's sign painter's technique and style might not be immediately considered folk art. But in this case, it is the development and use of the art form which undeniably makes it a folk art. The scene which he favored and, therefore, painted most often was the red roofed alpine cottage, approached via a winding path which meets a bridged stream or swan filled lake (Figure 6). Trees, mountains and clouds fill his backgrounds. Richard Oktavec, son of William and tradition bearer calls this one "the Swiss Chalet" screen. A sense of great 8

Figure 6

depth is achieved by luring the viewer from one plane to the next. The intended focal distraction would probably make the most ardent peeping Tom forget his mission. It is not uncommon to stroll down any random East Baltimore street and find that every screen on six or eight consecutive row houses is painted with the same scene. Whether the aim is keeping up with the Kowalski's or keeping undesirables from looking in is a moot point. Certainly, the function of the screen in such cases is not for individuality or distinction of one's real property. Richard Oktavec, who began screen painting after his father's death, claims the screens are contagious. "One sees it and everyone on the block wants it." It is primarily for this reason that the screens have remained in a relatively confined area, namely the East Baltimore communities of several ethnic groups. 4 Elaine Eff, taped interview with Richard Oktavec, Baltimore, Md., (Nov. 7,1974).


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The range of subjects is actually quite broad. Because Oktavec's "mountains-chalet-path-trees-bridge-water-swans" formula was at one time synonymous with "painted screens" it was widely desired and copied. Homemade renditions in every degree of accomplishment can be found in the area. Scenes of a pastoral nature predominate: snow scenes, log cabins tucked in shady forests, lakes dotted with fir-laden islands. In short, anything to deceive the resident into feeling cool on a hot summer day (Figures 7-10). It is more rare but not uncommon to find maritime scenes or buildings of historical or religious significance (Figure 11). For many years Mr. Oktavec had a virtual monopoly on the Baltimore painted screen market. His screens sold for from $3 to $10 depending on the complexity of the subject and size of the screen. Customers brought the screening to his shop either rolled or in the frame asking him to execute a scene of his or her own choosing. "Curtains we've got," they would say, "paint me a waterfall." or "Stars I can see for free, how about

some trees."5 By walking down a random street one might "travel" the Alps, Niagara Falls and the East China Sea without ever leaving the concrete pavement. Inevitably people began to realize that there was no great mystery to applying paint to window screens. Says Richard Oktavec,"Canvases are difficult. If you can do that, then you're an artist."6 He in fact painted his first "serious" screen when his father died leaving dozens of orders unfinished. Richard just picked up his dad's old stiff paintbrushes and oil base outdoor paints, primed the screens, and he was in business (Figure 12). The Oktavecs were not the only screen painters in Baltimore. During the depression years itinerant screen painters set up on East Baltimore street corners and for a dollar or two painted screens on demand. 5 Ralph Reppert,"PictureWindowsThat are Painted on Picture Windows:' Sunday Sun,(Baltimore, Md.), Aug. 9,1953. 6 Barry Lanman,taped interview with Richard Oktavec, Baltimore, Md., (July 18, 1971), Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, No. 5034.


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The work of dozens of distinctive hands is now visible on the East Baltimore streets. Each neighborhood has its own local screen painter who is oblivious to his counterpart perhaps only blocks away. For most of these "fair weather artists" the screens are a sideline, practiced after work and on weekends in the months of May and June. Ten dollars may sound inexpensive enough for a single screen, but if one were to attempt to cover the six windows and two doors (street and alley frontage) the cost would be prohibitive. Consequently men like octagenarian Frank DeOms who would "sooner be damned than pay out that kinda money to Oktavec"7 got into the act themselves. Mr. DeOms picked up some acrylic paints at the hardware store and some paint brushes at the 5 & 10. He had his whole block supplied with fanciful screens of his own "design" before he decided that he was good enough to charge money. He is one of the few painters who does not rely on the tried and true Swiss chalet motif. He does, however, stick to the "anything but Baltimore" theme, choosing his filler from his idea box of magazine and newspaper clippings saved for artistic inspiration (Figures 13 and 14). It is rare to find a signed screen though the "Elwood Avenue Screen Painter" for example, uses his social security number on his screens. His style is so distinctive that the picture itself in most cases is enough of a signature. Most of the snow scenes are the work of one man to whom Mr. Oktavec subcontracts work. "I can't paint snow pictures," he confesses, "so I just call up Johnny Eck and he loves to do them."8 The anonymity of this form of folk art and the total absence of competition have contributed to its survival. It still belongs and thrives in the community where it was conceived and has not been taken from the peoples' realm or budget. It is a custom-made art form designed for a specific space for a specific purpose which advancing technology has yet to displace. The crucial factor in the future of the painted screen lies in the integrity of the East Baltimore community. It has become a symbol of residential closeness, a solution to the particular problems of living in a certain space. Though some of the peripheral neighborhoods are changing today, the screen is still considered as much of an immovable fixture as are the marble steps. Both remind the residents that they have a certain responsibility to the neighborhood in terms of maintaining their individual exteriors. Like the marble steps, the painted window screen is on its way to becoming a trademark for the city of Baltimore. If its medium is ephemeral as compared to the nature of marble, its permanence should be insured by at least one other aspect: It's a lot more fun to paint a screen than it is to scrub steps (Figure 15). 7 Elaine Eff, taped interview with Frank DeOrns, Baltimore, Md., Nov.8, 1974. 8 Elaine Eff,taped interview with Richard Oktavec, Nov.8,1974.


Figure 15

Coming Soon: THE PAPER OF THE STATE THE PAPER OF THE STATE,a special Bicentennial exhibition honoring New York State folk art and folk artists who work with paper, opens April 9th,1976 and runs until June 2nd,1976. Included are a life-size polychromed papier-mache figure of a Quaker gentleman, a cut-paper of Dr. Strong's Sanatorium at Saratoga Springs, a hand-drawn map of a Shaker settlement with the name of the occupant of each house clearly indicated, and a ten foot panorama of New York harbor done in ink and watercolor by an unknown schoolboy at the Utica Academy in honor of the United States Centennial of 1876!

The earliest work in the exhibit is a pastel of the wife of a New York patron, MRS. ANTHONY VAN SCHAICK, from c. 1723 by the noted South Carolina artist, Henrietta Johnston. Well known folk artists from the 19th century include the watercolor portraitist Deborah Goldsmith, the 19th century ship painter James Bard, and the miniaturists J. Dalee and James Sanford Ellsworth. Also on display from the mid-19th century are a series of twenty-four wash drawings depicting the entire narrative of PILGRIM'S PROGRESS made by Sarah Raymond Travis of Bedford, New York. At one time, the drawings were joined together and unrolled while the local minister preached. The drawings were really an early form of the motion picture! The twentieth century is represented by several works, among them a drawing by Ralph Fasanella, the contemporary folk artist who recently donated the profits from a poster he created to deficit-ridden New York City. The show stretches from the 18th century down to the present and includes charcoals, pastels, pen-and-ink, watercolor, silhouettes, cut-papers, calligraphy, mixed media,and a wonderful selection of paper dolls, with one set of over 100 figures, four of which are monsters! An illustrated soft-covered catalogue written by the exhibition's curator, N. F. Karlins, accompanies the exhibition. THE PAPER OF THE STATE, is the fifth in the Museum's annual series on New York State folk art. The previous exhibitions have featured fabric, metal, pottery and wood. The series including THE PAPER OF THE STATE, has been made possible with grants from the New York State Council on the Arts.

CRIB AND DOLL QUILTS The Museum is organizing an exhibition on CRIB AND DOLL QUILTS, to open in October 1976. We are particularly interested in early Crib quilts that have a unique design not common to large full size quilts. If you own a quilt(s) that you would like to have considered for this exhibition, please send a history and photograph no later than May 15th, 1976.




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The Clarion (Spring 1976)  

The Painted Window Screens of Baltimore, Maryland