John Oktavec likes to say that he leaves his body when he paints pictures on window screens. In the after-dinner quiet of his Pasadena home, Oktavec brushes color on a wire screen. "Painting takes you away, at least for awhile," he says. "I have a way to escape, and, when I'm done, I have something beautiful."
As Oktavec paints, he also sails back in time, to the foot of Broadway and a lost planet known as the Summer of 1978.
He sees himself as a teenager, walking the cobblestones with his screen painter dad Richard Oktavec. Father and son buy a fat bag of western fries from Bair Brothers chicken stall at Broadway Market and walk down to the seawall to watch tugboats churn past the Domino Sugars sign.
And in his heart, two decades removed from the memory, the 43-year-old is happy.
Because Richard Oktavec, the link between the man who launched screen painting in Baltimore and the one working to keep it vital today, would be dead by 1979. "I learned a lot from my Dad," says John, who dropped out of the 11th grade not long after his father died.
Besides painted screens, John learned stained glass, gold leaf, and hand lettering from his father. Did the kid hang out with his old man to fathom the tricks of those trades?
"I just wanted to be near him," says John.
What the Peale family was to historical portraiture in postcolonial Maryland, the Oktavec family is to painted screens in Baltimore. More people have likely seen an original Oktavec in a rowhouse window than an authentic Peale of the Founding Fathers.
William Oktavec, John's grandfather, was a Czech immigrant who came to this country in 1909 and settled in the St. Wenceslaus neighborhood near Johns Hopkins Hospital, an area once called Swampoodle.
Sometime in 1913, William reckoned that if he painted the window screens of his grocery store it would shield his produce from the sun. He copied pictures of red roofed bungalows and pastoral scenes of gliding swans and paths winding through the pines from calendars and greeting cards.
Companies around the country sold "decorative" screens in the 19th century, but it was Oktavec who spread the idea through Baltimore and spread it big. The grocery gave way to Oktavec's Art Shop, and William taught his sons the trade along with others who lived around the North East Market, like the storied "half-man" Johnny Eck-star of the 1932 film Freaks-who lived a couple blocks from the Oktavec store.
Before long, people outside the family were imitating the work. You could get a dollar or more per screen if you were good, and painters like Alonzo Park would go door to door and bar to bar trading art for a couple bucks and a cold beer. By the mid-20th century, there were some 100,000 painted screens in the city.
The idyllic red bungalow became the image most often associated with the art form. To some extent, that's still true. "I teach the old fashioned bungalow," says Tom Lipka, one of the reigning screen swamis who teaches classes around town. "But after some people take two or three classes, they want to do something harder."
Painting an out-in-the-country red bungalow on a window screen seems to be the equivalent of a young rock and roll band mangling Chuck Berry chords: the foundation for all that follows.
John Oktavec paints the red bungalow to honor his lineage and because people still ask for it. But it's not who he is. "The old school is always inside of me, but advancement needs to be projected," he says. "I like skulls and flames and lightning. One of my favorite screens was Dale Earnhardt's car on the NASCAR infield."
On more than 800 screens, Oktavec has painted just about everything: deceased dogs for their bereaved owners, scenes from Star Wars, Frankenstein's monster, old gas stations reminiscent of Edward Hopper, and pigs riding Harleys. "I haven't done people on screens," he says. "Too hard to get the skin tone right."
If Oktavec is comfortable with the situation (not always the case), he'll paint anything for anybody. And if he takes a shine to you, he may not even charge you.
It's not all about the money for Oktavec, who works at an Arbutus sign shop-it's about creating something. After all, this is a guy who makes radio-controlled robots from old Weber grills. "With all the art in the world, it's impossible for me to stick to one medium," he explains.
Besides screens, he also paints on walls, canvases, the bottoms of bushel baskets, and even the gas tanks of motorcycles-"everything from large murals to detailing model railroads," he says. The body of a '75 Maverick sitting in his driveway may be next.
Oktavec relishes the fact that he gets paid a pretty penny to teach the fine points of screen painting, sometimes to art teachers, years after failing high school art.
"Me!" he cries, tickled pink. "The guy who used to get his hands smacked with rulers in school."
This summer, he'll turn out another 25 to 50 screens in between his other passions, and people will drive by and buy them right out of the windows. "They go like hot cakes," he says.
He likes it best when an old timer stops by and says: "I remember your father."
On the weekend of May 9 and 10, Baltimore will remember just about everyone who ever threw paint at a window screen. That weekend, the American Visionary Arts Museum (AVAM) will host a gathering of screen painters from hill and dale.
A tribute to Johnny Eck, including a showing of Freaks, is slated for the night of May 10 at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown, an area with a strong history of painted screens.
The two-day celebration-which also includes an auction to benefit the Painted Screen Society, exhibitions of screen paintings, and workshops for beginners-was organized by Elaine Eff, the Baltimore folklorist who is to painted screens what the surgeon Ben Carson is to twins joined at the head: the unchallenged expert.
"It's not outsider art, it's outside art!" she proclaims. "Our biggest interest is seeing these screens in windows where they belong."
Eff laments the steep decline in painted screens displayed on Baltimore rowhouses, where they were long prized for illusion and utility. These days, screen paintings are more likely to hang inside houses, where they're displayed as bonafide art objects.
When Eff's documentary film The Screen Painters was released in 1988, the city had about 7,000 decorated window screens. Although the film led to a reappraisal of a see-it-every-day-art that was long taken for granted, the numbers continued to go down.
Today, says Eff, the total is "close to one thousand." Next year, she hopes to go block by block with a posse of volunteers-"We'll get Boy Scouts to help!"-to get a hard number of how many screens remain and who still paints them.
"There were a few left in Pigtown when I was growing up," says John Elliott V, a 39-year-old native of South Carey Street. "I remember a deer in a forest painted on a screen. I always wondered what a deer and trees were doing near the corner of Carroll and Ostend."
It was an elk, says Eff, and probably done by Ben Richardson, the six-fingered artist and fiddler whose story is one of many told in the documentary, which will be shown at AVAM during the festival.
The film played repeatedly on PBS and helped push the medium beyond the Beltway. Eff suspects the film sent William Oktavec's brainstorm into the studios of artists who'd never eaten a real crab cake. "We used to know everybody who painted screens," says Eff, who acknowledges that that's no longer possible.
And with each new sensibility, whether generational or geographical, the red bungalow fades deeper into the past. When Eff says that the new wave is "not your grandmother's window screens," she means that it would never have occurred to your working-class forebears to decorate their house with an image of the house itself, as the current residents of Canton and Federal Hill often do.
And certainly your grandmother would not wear a corset made from a painted screen.
Jenny Campbell, an artist who grew up in Essex and comes from a family with roots along O'Donnell Street, tried doing traditional screens at first, "but it wasn't me," she says.
The 43-year-old charges commissions starting at $400 for a painted screen (to hang on a wall instead of in a window) of whatever the customer wants, be it their $600,000 townhouse or the Bromo Seltzer Tower, as she did for a relative of someone who had worked on the tower's clock. And it would be the rare white Baltimore resident of the 1940's and 1950's who'd have a painted screen of Billie Holiday marking their house.
Campbell specializes in clothing made out of painted fiberglass screen. While old hands Dee Herget and Tom Lipka hold "master" classes at the gala on how to paint traditional screens, Campbell may host a workshop on how to make "wearable" screens. "I don't sell the clothes I make out of screen, they're just for me," says Campbell, who may let you get close enough at the AVAM fete to notice that her corset is actually a very pliable screen painted to look like a corset.
At the opening reception at AVAM, a crowd will gather around a pair of make-believe rowhouses outfitted with screens from a range of artists. Above sets of faux white marble steps will be jewels of the Oktavecs: screens by William, his sons Richard and Albert, and young John.
(But nothing by Richard's widow Marlene, who earned her G.E.D. the same time John did and, while not a decorator of screens, was known to do a paint-by-numbers Jesus when the mood hit.)
While folks admire a painted screen door from the old Oktavec Art Shop, which survived the 1968 riots when other stores in the area didn't, the great Johnny O., prime contender to become the next "King of the Screen Painters"-the guy Elaine Eff says is "as good as it gets"-will be miles away.
John Oktavec, you see, never goes into the city anymore. He suffers attacks of anxiety if his regular routine of going to work and coming home and making art is upended. It seems he subscribes to the philosophy of another sensitive artist named Don Van Vliet: "The way I keep in touch with the world is very gingerly because the world touches too hard."
So instead of schmoozing it up at AVAM, John will be safe at home, turning out another gem of the very thing the schmoozers are making a fuss about. He'll also probably polish off a plate of supermarket pierogi with sour cream and sauerkraut.
"I'd love to exchange notes with other artists, get opinions on paint and brushes and stuff like that," he says. "But the chances of me being there are about the same as Darth Vader giving a charity check to the Little Sisters of the Poor."