Baltimore lays claim to a long list of innovations in every field imaginable, ranging from the practical to the peculiar. In that latter category might be the invention of the Ouija board or the introduction of Formstone, a debatable contribution that holds a special place in my heart as a Little Italy native. More universally useful Baltimore brainstorms would be the nation’s first passenger train, Saccharin, the linotype machine, the cordless drill, or maybe the portable cardiac defibrillator. (And did you know we were “the umbrella capital of the United States” in the 1920s?) But wait, how could we forget screen painting?
Okay, like the passenger-train claim, it wasn’t invented here (Britain, in both cases), but it was Baltimore that first embraced the idea on this side of the big pond.
In this issue, we salute all sorts of home-grown art, focusing particularly on the life of the man whose name was synonymous with screen painting, and who was a friend to lots of Baltimoreans of my generation—Johnny Eck.
Born without legs and employed for much of his career as a circus act, Eck had a second life as an artist, helping to make screen paintings ubiquitous in East Baltimore.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the art form, arts and culture editor John Lewis retraces Eck’s amazing life and rediscovers his old neighbors—who included me—as well as spotlights all the events coming up to celebrate Eck’s accomplishments and screen painting generally.
I recall Johnny vividly from my previous life as a postal carrier during the 1970s, when I was working his neighborhood (21205, if you must know). Perched on the front steps of his house in the 600 block of N. Milton St., he was friendly to everyone, and I’d chat with him for a few minutes after giving him his mail.
Other Baltimore firsts as big a deal as screen painting? How about the “golden hour” approach to shock trauma perfected at the University of Maryland, aluminum skis, or the nation’s first gas company? Oh, and about those umbrellas: Like Eck’s art form, we didn’t actually invent them, either—the Chinese claimed that one in 409 AD.