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Elaine Eff: The Painted Screens of Baltimore

Folklorist produces masterful history of screen-painting in Baltimore

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Painted window screens let the breeze in and kept prying eyes out.


The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed

Elaine Eff

University Press of Mississippi

This is the single greatest book about Baltimore to hit the streets since the days when the federal government tried to shove a double-decker highway through Federal Hill, across the harbor, and into Fells Point.

That’s more than 50 years ago now, long enough for the subject of this treasury—painted window screens, rowhouse adornments that let the breeze in and kept prying eyes out—to go from common to scarce in the last American city where they survive.

To be clear, Elaine Eff’s The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed isn’t the most important book on Our Town; that honor goes to Antero Pietila’s 2010 dissection of codified racism, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.

Nor the most entertaining, a distinction I like to give each year to Blue Book: Baltimore Society Visiting List, now in its 74th edition and yet to include anyone I am even remotely related to. (Unless you count the wayward “deb from Ruxton,” who wandered into Miss Bonnie’s Elvis Bar over the summer of ’89; but that’s another story.)

For soup-to-stupendous—from one end of the long, narrow alley that is Crabtown to the cast-iron sewer grate at the other—the trophy for the greatest book about the birthplace of my mother and Babe Ruth goes to The Painted Screens of Baltimore.

Here, in 256 pages between broad, hard, and handsome covers is the life’s work of Elaine Eff, who began researching the uber-provincial custom of screen-painting as a graduate student in 1974.

Eff’s documentation—knocking on doors, chatting people up, the spade work of the true folklorist—began about a dozen years after neighborhood activists kept that interstate highway from destroying Baltimore.

The “road” was stopped but not before more than 200 rowhouses just north of Boston Street were “senselessly demolished,” writes Eff, many of them adorned with painted screens salvaged for new homes in Dundalk and Essex.

While lifelong working people waited for their eviction notices—“They was dyin’ of broken hearts,” in the words of my Polish grandmother, who knew some of the displaced—many a tear was shed behind vivid painted screens.

Like the author, who moved to Baltimore in grade school, this book is colorful and conversational, intellectual (including a history of screens, originally called “wire cloth,” going back to the early 18th century) but not self-important. It is complete with photos of train gardens, original portraits of screen-painter and showman Johnny Eck, and it is written, noted Eff, “In two voices . . . the colloquial speech of the people and the facts and observations of the folklore scholar.”

Is this colloquial enough for you?

“I like bright colors,” says Eck. “Most of my clouds are yellow with just a touch of white and sometimes, if I am in a good mood, I will have the sun going down or coming up. It depends on if you just got out of bed or are just going to bed.”

Eff doesn’t speak above the people who have used and loved these screens for generations, those who enjoyed the beauty, lived in Baltimore all their lives without once visiting a museum and didn’t make much of a fuss about things we now hold dear. She is more like the smartest, somewhat off-kilter kid in the 5th grade, peeking through a painted screen to talk to the grown-up on the other side: “Hey Miss Tillie, can I come in?”

And they let her in by the scores: the artisans who trace the local practice back to a grocer-turned-art store owner named Oktavec in the Little Bohemia neighborhood near St. Wenceslaus, an area once known as Swampoodle; the homeowners who paid their bills the day they arrived and liked to boast that they “didn’t owe nobody nothing”; and documenters from an earlier age—neighborhood reporters and photographers plying a blue-collar craft long before the term “journalist” was in vogue.

There is a chapter on the history of Formstone, a passage on the best way to scrub your marble steps (a lesson which might be added to the city school curriculum in an age when so few know what everybody used to), and secrets revealed on how yes—you too—can do this at home.

The New York Times just named Painted Screens one of its holiday gift selections for 2013. That’s great for Eff and good for the University Press of Mississippi, which published this lush tome with the help of the Mellon Foundation Scholarly Initiative. Such notice will be helpful to outsiders (Baltimore-born or otherwise) who play in restaurants and bars that deliberately trade on caricatures of the genuine people in this book for a quick and kitschy buck, and for tourists (Baltimore-born or otherwise) who wouldn’t know a painted screen from Earl Scheib.

But all you need to know—those of you who ran to the “icebox” as a kid to grab a beer for your old man while he listened to the ballgame in the parlor—is that this is the single greatest book on Baltimore published in the last 50 years.

See an exhibition of painted screens curated by Eff at MICA’s Meyerhoof Gallery through March 16.

To see a gallery of painted screens from the book visit citypaper.com/elaineeff

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