Back in high school, Archie Boston still fancied himself a fine artist. Around 1961, his local library — the James Weldon Johnson Branch of the St. Petersburg public library system on 18th Avenue South — gave Boston his first one-man show. A black-and-white photo shows a smiling, handsome young man holding two of his paintings: one of Gibbs High School, his alma mater, the other of a bouquet of flowers.
That was before Boston moved to California to attend Chouinard art school (now known as CalArts) and became a prominent graphic designer and art director in Los Angeles. Before he taught for 32 years at California State University, Long Beach. And before he became a role model for many as an African-American designer not afraid to push buttons by addressing social inequality and racial difference in his work.
Since his retirement in 2005, Boston has returned to Tampa Bay (he and his family split their time between L.A. and Lutz) and to painting. Through August, a series of his oil paintings of historic St. Pete sites are on display at ARTicles, the two-month old gallery opened by St. Pete City Council member Leslie Curran to replace her previous space, Interior Motives. The selection of nine paintings doesn’t quite feel like a full-blown exhibition, but rather an appetite-whetting glimpse into one man’s memories of St. Petersburg — memories that many are likely to share or relate to.
To get the whole story, you’d have to read Boston’s two self-published memoirs — Fly in the Buttermilk, devoted to his work as a graphic designer, and L’il Colored Rascals in the Sunshine City, about his childhood in the Burg. He grew up in Robinson Court, a housing project known colloquially as “The Neck,” in the Gas Plant, an historic African-American neighborhood that was bulldozed in the 1980s to build Tropicana Field. As “Flea Parrot,” his childhood nickname, Boston traversed downtown St. Pete in search of adventures, often with one or more of his five siblings. “There were pain and suffering in The Neck, however, the good times far exceeded the bad,” he writes in L’il Colored Rascals.
Boston’s paintings commemorate the sites of those adventures.
Booker Creek, the drainage stream that runs through Roser Park, looks dry and somewhat withered today; Boston’s canvas conjures it surrounded by lush greenery and glimmering beneath the sun. In the 1950s, an afternoon’s skinny dipping in the creek was a good adventure for Flea Parrot and friends, though one that earned him a belt whipping from mom. Only years later, Boston says, did he realize how polluted with industrial run-off and other contaminants the creek would have been in those days.
“God must have been protecting us,” he said during a recent interview.
Another canvas depicts the neighborhood’s namesake, the massive, cylindrical drum of the Gas Plant. A third breathes life into Webb’s City, the massive proto-department store that once spanned seven blocks in downtown St. Pete. Boston recalls being left to stand outside with his younger sister while his mother shopped. In her absence, white shoppers would stop to coo over the children, handing Boston a nickel or a dime. By the time his mother returned, his pockets would be full of change. Boston’s painting of the store, a loving reproduction down to the sign advertising “World’s Most Unusual Drug Store” and the mermaid-on-a-half-shell lamppost outside, conveys a warm fondness for it.
Like most of Boston’s paintings, the image is based on a found photograph of the store and it doesn’t overextend itself trying to match the detail of the photo; instead, its gentle realism is the product of soft, luminous color and the confidence of strong draftsmanship.
In Los Angeles, Boston’s graphic design career coincided with sea changes in civil rights in the late 1960s. Boston and his older brother opted to create their own design firm, Boston & Boston. Knowing that they faced the possibility of discrimination, they made the bold decision to market themselves as African-American designers. Their approach was provocative, making race the subject of humor that would fall under the category of “politically incorrect” today. One poster showed both brothers shirtless, wearing signs that read “For Sale” around their necks, with descriptions listed below.
At 69, Boston remains willing to accept the compliment — often bestowed — that his early work was particularly courageous, even if that kind of daring isn’t exactly his style these days.
“I’m proud of doing it when I did it,” he says.
A legacy just as lasting has been left by his decades of teaching, helping countless students of all races gain entry into the worlds of advertising and graphic design, and his leadership of the Art Director’s Club of Los Angeles. In 2007, he was named a fellow by the L.A. chapter of AIGA, the American Institute of Graphic Arts.
Painting has been Boston’s retirement project — one influenced by his desire to discover a more spiritual side of life. ARTicles has his original canvases on display, but visitors to the Johnson branch library — the site of Boston’s first solo show — can find reproductions of them there, too, in the same place where Flea Parrot came as a boy to read about Leonardo da Vinci.
“I never thought in my life that my painting would be here in this library,” Boston says. “Maybe this is my calling for the next few years.”
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