If you could safely stand in the center of the intersection of S. Washington St. and E. Lombard Sts. you would have a historic view of Baltimore. Looking north and south on S. Washington St. or east and west on E. Lombard St. your view would be dominated by Baltimore’s traditional borders of rowhouses. However, throughout the city a number of those rowhouses also contain another unique Baltimore tradition, painted window screens!
Painting window screens is a tradition initiated in Baltimore City over 100 years ago and the tradition has a well established history. In 1913, a Czechoslovakian immigrant named William Oktavec was running a grocery in the eastern section of the city. But he had a dilemma. If he put his fruit and produce outside so shoppers could see what he had, it would be damaged by the heat and insects. On the other hand, if he protected it inside the shop then shoppers couldn’t see the fine merchandise he had to sell.
In an article commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the tradition, Eric Stitt (1) explains it this way.
In an act of utility, Oktavec painted some fruit and produce on a screen door he had in the entrance of his shop as a way to advertise the now hidden and protected fruit.
People in his East Baltimore neighborhood quickly took notice of the unique piece of advertising Oktavec displayed. Soon, residents of the neighborhood started asking for their own screens to be painted by Oktavec.
By the end of that summer, a new folk art was born in Baltimore City. 100 years later, artists both young and old are still practicing that same art today.
Now back to that busy intersection… The rowhouse on the southwest corner of S. Washington St. and E. Lombard St. houses the Julie Community Center which has worked with the communities of Southeast Baltimore for over 40 years. To that tradition of service the Julie Center now adds the tradition of painted window screens!
Laura Syron, the Julie Center’s Executive Director, contacted Michael Seipp to help design the project. Michael is a long-time south Baltimore resident and activist, and a friend and volunteer of the Julie Community Center. He is an accomplished artist and screen painter, and a member of the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore.
During the Center’s annual Peace Camp for children in 2018 Michael Seipp taught the young campers, ages 5 – 11, and the staff the basics of screen painting. Little hands struggled to keep the paint from clogging the screens but Michael and the staff persevered with them! The work continued into the fall. It took a lot of work and many volunteer hours to complete the project but the screens are back in the windows of the Julie Center.
The result is the Center’s E. Lombard St. side wall of twelve (12) screens painted to read “L-O-V-E “ and “K-I-N-D-N-E-S-S” on the third and second floor windows. Love and Kindness are essential themes in the annual Julie Center’s Peace Camp. Some young people designed their own screen art, including hearts, a big “B”, and clover leaves to decorate the lower floor windows.
Look up and look around to enjoy this new addition to the community!