Keeping the art of screen painting alive with Baltimore students

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By John Iampieri, Young Audiences visual artist and screen painter

There is a magical feeling that happens when you are painting a screen. Everywhere I go, I always ask, “Has anybody ever seen a painted screen?” and hardly anyone ever raises a hand. It is such a functional, unique art form, and yet there are only a handful of us left that are associated with the Baltimore Painted Screen Society. Screen painting is like any other practice or custom that becomes extinct: it can become too late to embrace it.

I make it my mission to try to keep the art alive by sharing my passion with others. When I’m working with students during a screen painting residency program, I’m planting the seeds of knowledge about an art form specific to Baltimore. This is why the opportunity to bring a residency to Baltimore Design School students was so exciting for me.

There are so many talented young people at the Baltimore Design School. Early on in the residency, I realized that I was working with a special group of individuals with a lot of possibilities ahead of them. The task at hand was to work with an unusual art form that was born and bred in Baltimore, and the students rose to the occasion.

I had the opportunity to collaborate with the teachers before our first workshop to create the curriculum that would work best for students. We decided to focus the designs of the screens on four categories: fashion design, architecture, graphic design, and visual arts. The students went online to research artists in three of these fields, and then voted on the artists they wanted to feature. Students sketched designs of the three selected individuals which would be transferred to the screens. The teachers also got involved, collaborating with me to create the design for the fourth and final screen, featuring visual artist Romare Bearden.

During the residency, students had the opportunity to meet with folklorist and author Elaine Eff for a tour through her exhibit, “Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore and Beyond,” at MICA in January. Throughout the tour, the students were interested and focused, and they got a great experience out of it.

In the classroom, my goal is always to keep the kids engaged. One way I do this is by giving control to the students. I brought the materials, but the students constructed the frames and stretched the screens. I constantly reminded them after each workshop, “Remember when we started this project? There was nothing! Remember when the screens were black? Remember when we primed them? Remember when we painted?” I wanted to reiterate to them that everything was their doing.

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See more photos from this residency here!

Teacher Ms. Cafaro developed the idea of a screen painting quiz. Working together, we made a list of questions on screen painting, incorporating what students had learned in class about the history of the art form, the figures they were painting, and other famous historical designers. This exercise regularly grounded our project in history, connecting the construction of the screens to what was being learned in the classroom.

What was most challenging for the students during the residency was working in groups. Creating painted screens in the classroom is really team-oriented, and each workshop is an organized chaos as students work next to each other and make decisions together. After collaborating on the design of the screen, decisions also need to be made about color and the application of the paint.

It’s very exciting to see those types of engagements among students. When everybody–students and teachers–saw the completed screens, they genuinely reacted with “Wow, these are really cool!” I encouraged the students to try screen painting at home now that they are trained professionals.

Projects like this residency are important because through the arts, students can learn a different way to better understand curricular concepts that may be more challenging when taught with a more conventional learning path.

I’m very fortunate to be able to get into the classroom, and I never could have done it if it weren’t for what I’ve learned through Young Audiences and the Maryland State Arts Council. I’m fortunate to be involved with Young Audiences because it gives me the chance to do what I love.

Read Elaine Eff’s reflection on the residency.

Learn more about John Iampieri and his visual arts residency program.

Passing on a Baltimorean art tradition

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By Elaine Eff, folklorist, author of “The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed,” and co-founder of the Painted Screen Society

The recent Young Audiences artist-in-residence at the Baltimore Design School was one of those serendipitous and wonderful coincidences you don’t often come across. John Iampieri, a member of the Painted Screen Society who we’ve been working with for a number of years, has taught all over Maryland through his work with Young Audiences. When he announced that there was going to be a residency at the school, it was like all of our dreams come true!

The Painted Screen Society has been involved in residencies since the society began in 1985 for the purpose of keeping rowhouse arts alive in Baltimore. The whole idea behind the society is to get the art form into the hands of people who are more likely to carry it on or would benefit from knowledge of the indigenous tradition. Nothing could be more useful than to maintain it in the hands of Baltimore students who are being schooled to be artistic in some way.

I wanted to make sure that the students working with John would get the full experience of the history of painted screens, so they came to MICA, and together we toured the recent exhibit, Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore and Beyond (Meyerhoff Gallery, December 13, 2013 to March 16, 2014), which was a three-dimensional embodiment of everything in my book, “The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed,” and focused on passing the tradition on. The students also saw the documentary film “The Screen Painters” and got to see the painters in action. They learned that painted screens were not just meant to be beautiful, but were also a practical innovation, used in private homes to discourage individuals from seeing into windows while still allowing those inside to see out. I wanted students to understand that this is something that is relevant to their lives and their environments, because this is a Baltimorean art form–born here, created here, consumed here, and beloved here for many years.

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Anybody who is able to get one more person to understand the value of painted screens in his or her own community is important, but John just happens to be an incredibly organized, thoughtful, and patient teacher. He has the right combination of creative ideas because he thinks in terms of the group working together as opposed to individuals creating single products.

John thinks beyond the screen. He isn’t thinking merely about putting an image on your window; he’s thinking about images that can be adapted to all sorts of applications, and the fact that he thinks big, in terms of banners and murals, brings him right into the intersection of the new breed of screen painters and the whole digital evolution. His approach allows many hands to collaborate to make large screens that can have a variety of installations. With his help, the students at the Baltimore Design School came together with a single purpose, which produced really impressive results that they can be proud of.

What was really important throughout the project was that the students realized that everything was up to them. They chose the subjects and the teams. They then learned about design, color, and new materials they never would have heard of. They were also learning to work as a group. Learning to do something in a prescribed manner sometimes trumps being an independent artist—a status they may not be ready for.

I’m hoping that, after this project, some of them say, “Wow, I can do that!” and will go home and add value to their own homes. I hope the students’ eyes have been opened to possibilities they didn’t even know about and also to a really important traditional art that is native to their city, one that couldn’t be more relevant to the rowhouses they live in and the lives that they lead. I’m hoping that connections were made and that one day they’ll say, “I remember that.” I hope they some will keep the tradition alive, because without people who know and value them, traditions do not endure.

Part of the beauty of this art form is that there’s always been an ebb and a flow. Painted screens have been everywhere and nowhere in the course of a hundred years, and my sense is that they’ll be back, and they’ll be in another form, and let’s hope that Young Audiences continues to play a role.

Learn more about Elaine’s book, “The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed,” and how to purchase a copy online .

Read more about John Iampieri and his visual arts residency program here.