Libraries Society of North America 31st Annual Conference
Wyndham Baltimore Inner Harbor, Baltimore, Maryland – March 20-26, 2003
Sharon Wasserman, Director of the Library and Research Center, National Museum of Women in the Arts
Elaine Eff, Director, Cultural Conservation Program, Maryland Historical Trust, “The Painted Screens of Baltimore: Folk Art for All”
Dean Krimmel, Independent museum professional, “Creative Control: Baltimore Christmas Gardens and their Remarkable Makers”
Author and decoy art collector, “From Decoy Maker to Wildfowl Artist”
presented three art forms associated with Baltimore and the Chesapeake region of
Maryland: painted screens, Christmas gardens, and decoys.
Elaine Eff began the
session by speaking about painted screens in Baltimore. This art form began
in1913 when Czech immigrant William Anton Oktavec began painting images of
produce on the screens of his Northeast Baltimore grocery store. He did this to
keep his produce inside and out of the heat of the sun. Because the screen was
painted on the outside, people on the inside of the building could see out, but
no one could see in. Soon customers
were asking Oktavec to paint screens for them, and his signature image of a
red-roofed bungalow in an idyllic setting became ubiquitous in screen paintings.
Soon Oktavec gave up his shop, opened an art store, and began painting screens
almost full-time. Other well-known screen painters are Johnny Eck, and Ben and
Ted Richardson. Baltimore residents used (and still use) the screens for
privacy, to break the monotony of the traditional row houses, and to make a
statement. Eff explained that painted screens actually go back to 18th
century England and 19th century New England. They were found mostly
in prosperous homes, where the screens were painted so that they would not rust.
Eff also mentioned her film “The Screen Painters,” which was shown at the
conference’s movie night on Friday, March 21. She is also working on a book on
Dean Krimmel spoke
about the Baltimore Christmas garden tradition. Krimmel explained that the
tradition dates back 200 years, but that it is dying out and today there are
many more spectators than participants. Christmas gardens are essentially
elaborate scenes built around Christmas trees. The tradition originated with the
German immigrants of Eastern Pennsylvania, particularly the Moravians, who
brought with them from Germany the nativity scene or “putz.” They later
brought this tradition to Baltimore, where it expanded into something more
involved. The gardens would be put up beginning around Thanksgiving and heralded
the beginning of the Christmas season. The gardens were geared towards children
and usually included trains and other moving parts, with bodies of water,
bridges, lights, and figurines. They tended to include a lot of recycled parts.
The gardens often grew too big for the trees they surrounded and ended up taking
over whole living rooms and basements. Setting up these gardens was a great
outlet for men wanting to use their mechanical and electrical abilities. Today
in Baltimore there is one volunteer and one city fire department that set up
Christmas gardens in their firehouses.
Henry Stansbury spoke about decoy art, which began around 200 years ago. His presentation, which was accompanied with slides and actual examples of decoys, traced the history of decoys from practical items for hunters to decorative art objects. Native Americans introduced the concept of using a decoy to attract waterfowl. Colonists in the Chesapeake region took this idea and started carving decoys from wood. In the 19th century decoys became a big business, particularly as the commercial gunning of wildfowl increased. In the early 20th century Congress banned commercial hunting of wildfowl, and hunting clubs began to develop. It was at this point, with limits on hunting, that decoys became less utilitarian and more decorative. Stansbury mentioned some of the better-known decoy makers, such as Bob McGaw and Lloyd Tyler, who was one of the earliest. His work marks the beginning of the transition from working to decorative decoys. Lem and Steve Ward are the most famous of the Chesapeake carvers, and worked from 1918, when they established their business, to the 1970s. The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, Maryland is named for the Ward brothers. It hosts the annual Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition. Stansbury discussed the popularity of decoys as collectibles. Decoys that sold for $5.00 in the 1930s might now sell in the five figures.