Cardboard Chronicles: The Biblical Art of Rudolph Bostic
By John Kohan
Corrugated cardboard is the work horse of paper products. Made from ribbed layers of heavy paper glued between smooth outer sheets, this paragon of packing materials is cost-effective, lightweight, durable, malleable, and easily recycled. Discarded cardboard panels have become the material of choice for many artists in this economically-challenged, environmentally-conscious age. They can be sliced, torn, shredded, layered, glued, painted, and molded into everything from textured corporate logos to free-standing sculptural pieces.
Rudolph Valentino Bostic was creating recycled cardboard art long before the current “green art” trend began. Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1941, he had a passion to paint but limited means for art materials. He was working at the Derst Baking Company in Savannah, when he got the inspired idea in 1979 of using its discarded cardboard barrel tops and boxes as his canvases. “I had decided on the subject of my art,” recalls Bostic. “The Bible had story after story to tell. I just had to pick what to paint them on. I ran my hand across these big old cardboard sheets. They were so smooth. This was what I wanted.”
The pieces in the Bowden Collections Exhibition, Cardboard Chronicles: The Biblical Art of Rudolph Bostic, offer a fascinating glimpse into the education of a self-taught artist, as we study Bostic’s experiments with types of paint and color palettes, compositional techniques and framing devices in developing his highly personal style of cardboard art. Even more important is the story these brilliant, multi-colored panels have to tell us. For Bostic, corrugated cardboard is merely the means for conveying a message: The saga of humanity’s fall and God’s plan of redemption.
Beginning in the Garden of Eden, Bostic takes us step by step in this exhibition through the Salvation Story. Noah builds an ark to save God’s good creation from the Flood. David becomes King of Israel, founding the royal line from which Christ the Savior will come (depicted as the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23.) Mary is comforted by an angel bringing news of Christ’s birth. Images follow in succession of the Nativity, Jesus’ ministry and miracles, and his redeeming death on the Cross, prefigured in the Old Testament stories of Abraham and Isaac (painted on a flour barrel lid) and Jonah and the whale.
Bible stories are a natural subject for this artist of faith. “I know all about the Bible, because I was raised in the church,” Bostic explains. “We went to the Second African Baptist Church on Green Square in Savannah, where my uncle used to be pastor. I still take my mother there on Sundays.” Bostic taught himself to draw as a child, making cut-out toys of Cowboys and Indians, but his preacher uncle set him on the artistic path he would follow in life, when he asked Rudolph and his younger brother, Lewis, to make paintings of Bible stories on plywood panels to hang in their church
Bostic’s widowed mother had to support four children on a hairdresser’s salary. There was no money left over for art school, so, the would-be painter got a job at the baking company and kept his dreams to himself, until he had his revelation about using discarded cardboard. Says Bostic: “I used to do the afternoon shift at the bakery, looking after the machinery from three o’clock until late at night. When I got home, everyone else would be sleeping, so I’d take out my paint and brushes, lay a piece of cardboard atop the blanket on my bed, and paint until two o’clock in the morning.”
Bostic is an intuitive artist, who seldom makes preliminary sketches or retouches a finished painting. He outlines his subject on a cardboard panel with a felt-tipped pen, then, fills in the areas with paint, adding details as he goes along. Bostic’s first medium was enamel house paint in left over cans. Now, he uses acrylic and metallic paints and has expanded his palette with a colorful array of small house paint samplers. His “Blue Period” lasts until the pot is empty. “Some people have written about the unusual way I combine colors,” says Bostic. “I don’t really plan it. It’s whatever comes to mind, while I’m painting.”
One distinctive feature of Bostic’s cardboard art is his use of framing devices. In their simplest variation, he paints a black border around the central image, decorating it with a single curved line or intertwined lines in bright shades of white, orange, or yellow. These “faux” frames can be found in most pictures in the exhibition, including Adam and Eve Naming of the Animals, King David, The Good Shepherd, and Comforting Mary. In Bostic’s portrait of Judas, the Betrayer of Christ is not only edged in an outer black frame with curved lines but enclosed by an inner border of what appear to be the flickering flames of damnation.
Sometimes, Bostic cuts out real cardboard frames, which he attaches to his paintings, richly decorating them with vignettes, having a visual or symbolic connection to the main subject. In The Nativity with Angel, an image of Mary and Joseph and a hovering angel is surrounded by close-ups of the Holy Family, the angel, the manger animals, table pottery, crosses, and a cluster of fruit (perhaps the cherries of The Cherry-Tree Carol!) Lake of Fire has a painted inner border and an outer cut-out frame with multiple images of desert landscapes, falling figures, and crosses.
The cardboard artist has been experimenting with a third framing device in his most recent works. The black borders and cut-out frames are gone, and the biblical narratives unfold across the cardboard panel in a cartoon-strip of images, separated by rows of white dots, resembling strands of pearls. In The Creation, Bostic presents a pastel-toned montage of moments in the Garden of Eden, set in an architectural structure, resembling an icon screen.
Bostic has developed his own iconography and uses the same images repeatedly in his paintings, especially in the vignettes on the cut-out frames. White doves represent peace and the descent of the Holy Spirit. Table settings with food suggest festive banquets and celebrations; bunches of grapes or a chalice and plate of bread image the Eucharistic elements; harps and trumpets stand for praise and jubilation. In The Crucifixion, we see two stools (with and without a harp), representing kingly thrones. They recall King David, playing the harp, and Christ in his Passion, seated on a stool, mockingly proclaimed the King of the Jews by Roman soldiers.
Angels play an important role in Bostic’s visual cosmology. They feature in many paintings in this exhibition both in the central panels and the marginalia. A fine example of this angelic imagery is the diagonally divided panel, Wrestling the Angel, where the upper scene of Jacob wrestling the angel (Genesis 32:22-30) is contrasted with a lower image of an angel comforting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:43). “I love angels,” says Bostic. “I believe angels are behind most of what happens on this earth, working for the forces of light. There are guardian angels and angels who oversee the weather. God has given each angel a specific job to do.”
Bostic pursues his craft in solitude in a bedroom of his modest Savannah home. His window on the world is his television set, which he keeps on, while painting. He attributes his multiple image framing techniques to split screen, special effects he has seen in films. Pop culture references occasionally find their way into his art. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil gets its title from Author John Berendt’s 1994 bestselling expose of Savannah society. Bostic’s recapitulation of the Salvation story from the Garden of Eden to Christ’s empty Garden tomb (with angels, again!) has little in common with its literary source. The words of the title just fired Bostic’s imagination.
The self-taught artist keeps art books and piles of clippings from magazines, and newspapers for inspiration. He says his paintings have been most influenced by Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Studying the Great Masters, Bostic has developed a very individual chiaroscuro style. He uses strongly contrasting stripes of light and dark colors, especially in drapery, to give paintings like Comforting Mary and Jesus Calms the Sea a special vibrancy. Says Bostic, “Those Old Masters knew how to capture the power and the glory of God.”
These unique cardboard creations have won Bostic a niche in the booming folk/outsider art market of the American South. His works can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the American Folk Art Museum in New York, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. But the cardboard craftsman remains largely indifferent to the contemporary art scene. “I’ve looked at the work of modern artists, but they’re into strange symbols and things that aren’t real,” he says. “For me the Bible is the real thing.”
Bostic is content to create his cardboard chronicles, whether they sell or not, filling his second floor attic with dozens of finished panels on biblical themes. Like a medieval artisan, this modern painter makes sacred art for the glory of God, transforming waste paper into shimmering visions of faith.