- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2000

Dee Herget minces no words as she applies the paint to a window screen under a spotlight in the tiny back room studio of her Essex, Md., home. Splash, daub, dot. A large pink pig is taking shape on the flat patterned surface. A very happy pig, smelling a yellow flower under blue skies in a very green garden.
"I've never done a pig before," she says, pointing to drawings in a plastic-encased book, "The Pig Poets," that she is using as a guide. "I'm a swan person. Usually I can't paint a screen without a swan on it."
Swans are more commonly found in this popular art form believed to be unique to Baltimore.
But she isn't one to argue with a client's request and, when pressed, will admit she likes the challenge of something new. Swans in the past have been replaced by penguins, flamingos, even whales. Anything the customer wants up to a limit.
There are some things that one of the Baltimore area's best-known screen painters won't do.
"I won't do people," she insists. Human figures run counter to the tradition of screen painting as it was practiced in row-house neighborhoods such as Dundalk, Canton and Highlandtown, beginning around 1913. The dominant theme was a bucolic summer scene a red roof bungalow was another key icon suggesting a cool world and escape from hot city streets.
"Someone asked me to do her son's face. He was in Jessup [the Maryland House of Correction] for murder. I wouldn't even paint him on the garbage can."
Mrs. Herget, who gives her age as "39 or something," is a self-described 'character' and living legend of sorts who isn't even a Baltimore native. Born in Los Angeles, she came to the city as a child with her father when he moved there to take care of his mother.
She first learned the trade in the late 1970s from a retired screen painter but is almost entirely self-taught and only recently took her first art class in pastels. When a hearing loss forced her to quit a job in the complaint department of the Baltimore municipal building, she set up shop at home, where she lives with her husband, Carl Herget, a retired policeman, and assorted dogs, cats and parakeets. A duck named Affleck (It's true, I tell ya) lives behind wire in their front yard. Most are 'rescue' animals.
These days, the side of the Hergets' van advertises "Painted Screens." She even has her own Web site www.screenpainter.com which has brought her customers from as far away as Australia and Paris and "a lot from the West Coast." Samples rest against the front porch, next to the screen door decorated by a forest scene.
She paints daily, beginning as early as 7:30 a.m. and taking as few as two hours or as long as three days to complete a screen depending on the detail involved. One of her favorite scenes pictures Baltimore's famous red row houses with their white marble steps and every window showing a painted screen.
"I'd like to see every city block with one," she says.
Elaine Eff, of Catonsville, Md., who is in charge of cultural programs for Maryland Historic Trust, helped with a 1988 documentary produced under the auspices of the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore, which she founded. She even did her doctorate dissertation on the subject. The society, formed in 1985, has grown to include some 500 members, many of whom like Ms. Eff aren't painters themselves but are interested in supporting art she calls "totally Baltimore." Their aim eventually is to have an exhibition center and school.
Mrs. Herget is the only one of two painters still living who were featured in the film. The other is Tom Lipka of Parkville, Md.
The origin of screen painting the Baltimore version generally is credited to a Czech immigrant grocer named William Oktavek, who thought of painting pictures of his merchandise on screens to show the public what was on sale inside. Next, the story goes, a woman in his East Baltimore neighborhood asked him to reproduce on her screen a calendar picture.
Since the painted scene, which is visible only from the outside, shields the interior from prying eyes, she thought the screen would protect her privacy on summer days before she got air conditioning when windows and doors were kept open to let in any cooling breezes. "You can see out, but nobody can see in" was the saying.
Electric cooling systems nearly killed off the custom after World War II. There were an estimated 100,000 painted screens by the 1930s, but the number is down to 3,000 or less today as neighborhoods become more 'gentrified,' and the paintings themselves now mainly a commercial enterprise. What began as a utilitarian device became a fad and eventually an art form.
A younger generation, represented by Baltimore native Jenny Campbell of Westminister, Md., has taken the custom to another level. An employee of the Walters Art Gallery, she makes small 5-by-7-inch framed screens that can be displayed on walls or tables; they sell for $35 at Canton Gallery and the American Visionary Arts Museum shop among other places.
Each painter develops his or her own style. Miss Campbell will do celebrity portraits or a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, while Mrs. Herget will not. "People say to me 'I want the house and the ducks.' "
Mrs. Herget is one of few active painters who knew Mr. Oktavek and even has a tool he gave her, a long-handled 2-inch carefully sculpted brush that she calls her "cloud brush" for dappling large spaces at once. "Nobody else has one."
She begins each screen by marking which is the top and outside, then draws an outline with chalk. Next comes a prime coat of light blue paint "for a lake with a swan and sky." Brushes are stacked around her in dozens of pots. The oil-based paint the kind used by sign painters is kept in old coffee cans.
"You do a little bit at a time, let it dry and come back to it," she says, refusing to give away what she calls her "tricks." When paint clogs a hole, she stabs it with a toothpick.
She stands on several rubberized mats and listens to the radio "classical music, G. Gordon Liddy, Dr. Laura ("Mostly I agree with her but not always."). A sign reading "Do Not Disturb. I'm disturbed enough already" sits nearby. She travels occasionally Elderhostel trips to Europe and elsewhere and is thinking of going to Egypt next.
"I never have meant for it to go as far as it has," she claims of her work. "People say 'what do you do?' lawyer, teacher and so forth. I say 'I paint screens.' 'You do what?'" they say.

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