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Pavement Populist

For 40 years, CFA alum Sidewalk Sam has brought art to the people

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow | Video by Erik Duda

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In the video above, Robert Guillemin (CFA’62,’67), better known as Sidewalk Sam, talks about public art and using sidewalks as canvases. Photos by Melody Komyerov

Gazing at the scene in front of the Boston skyscraper, you think, There must be a full moon coming. The International Place security isn’t lifting a finger to stop the two women splattering paint on the sidewalk; in fact, black-suited staff helped rope off space for the graffiti-makers, chatting amiably all the while with the wheelchair-bound Santa Claus look-alike in a blue fleece coat overseeing the whole scene. That this defacing of public property proceeds unperturbed owes to the fact that the leader is as iconic as St. Nick.

“Hey guys, look what we’re doing. We’re painting a cornucopia on the ground,” Robert Guillemin (CFA’62,’67), better known as Sidewalk Sam, says with boyish gusto to any Financial District passers-by within earshot. His wife, Tina, and an artist friend Ying Zhang (CFA’11) diligently daub autumnal browns, yellows, and creams into the shape of a horn overflowing with acorns, squash, and onions. Sidewalk (even Tina calls him that) leans from his chair to brush some tomatoes into the painting, but mostly supervises and banters with pedestrians. Some glance at the work with expressionless curiosity, some break into smiles, some offer a simple “Cool” or a thumbs-up.

It’s quickly clear that painting in public brings 73-year-old Guillemin an audience far more eclectic than art museum or gallery patrons. A shambling man lugging a garbage bag over his shoulder, evidently down on his luck, answers Sidewalk’s “How are you?” with, “I’ve been better, but I love your cornucopia.” The most rapt spectators are a wagon full of toddlers from the building’s child-care center. A few longtime fans also stop by. “Are you Sidewalk Sam?” asks Danita Callender, who works in the building, as she strikes up a long conversation with a man who’s personally a stranger, but whose work she’s seen for decades. “I’ll be back down” to see the completed painting, she promises.

For more than 40 years, Sidewalk Sam has used Boston’s (and occasionally other cities’) sidewalks, streets, and plazas as canvases for paint or chalk, sometimes recruiting passers-by as collaborators. There’s no count of his asphalt and concrete creations—“Probably thousands; I wouldn’t even guess,” says Tina—but they’ve ranged from reproductions of famous masterpieces to a simple vine he coaxed BU students into drawing at the 2010 Comm Ave Fair. The oddity of his medium made him a media magnet long before then, and long before the wheelchair (the result of a 1994 fall off his roof). International Place invites him to decorate its sidewalk every year; he once painted Mount Rushmore with the faces of Mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01) and other local notables.

He gives his cornucopia a one- to two-month expiration date before it vanishes under the wear and tear of the elements and human feet. That perishability doesn’t faze him. He likens his art to a pleasant summer’s day chat on the veranda of his Newton house. “It’s going to end, and you and I will disappear and only have a memory of our morning,” he says. “And knowing that makes this more precious. I think the idea of having all art last forever has about it an ugly quality, akin to used car sales.”

Seeming impediment

The other seeming impediment to his work he actually refers to as “the benefit of becoming a paraplegic.” He credits his disability for his artistic evolution, requiring him to recruit the crowds that often help him make his art. “It’s become a beautiful act in democracy and mutual love.…So many people say, ‘Oh, I can’t draw a straight line’—which is a handicap, by the way.”

That he walked away from a traditional career of galleries and elite audiences shouldn’t obscure the fact that “Bob is a very accomplished artist, who knew his craft and the history of art before embarking on this very original adventure,” says Benjamin Juarez, dean of the College of Fine Arts. Advocating for Everyman and using his art in such political actions as the peace and anti–urban violence movements, Guillemin occupies a distinctive niche as a “citizen’s artist,” Juarez says.

Most artists don’t look to bug-crawling, chewing gum–stuck pavement for their inspiration. But most likely don’t share Guillemin’s conflicted feelings about elite art, honed during the days when he worked at the Louvre. Copying the great works there, he found too many that “chose the side and fought for the glory of privileged classes. It was an extension of the Papal See and of kings,” and later of artsy-fartsy types who visit museums to look at things like the Mona Lisa. He preferred the work of Frenchman Jean-Baptiste-Simeone Chardin, who painted “a loaf of bread, a pot, humble vessels that were on every merchant’s shelf, and he invested them with a sanctity.” Whereas critics dismissed Norman Rockwell’s popular, sentimental work as commercialized schlock, Guillemin remains an unabashed admirer: “You don’t get repeatedly on the cover of Saturday Evening Post magazine and not speak a common language.”

More than populism fuels Sidewalk Sam; spirituality also has a hand. He briefly attended Jesuit-run Boston College, intending a career as a clergyman. “After my freshman year, though, a priest said, ‘You know, you don’t exhibit very much fatherly traits.’” Forced to reimagine his plans, Guillemin recalls, “I thought of art in a very moral way.…The artist isn’t involved in just creating beauty. He’s involved in communicating truth and reacting to truth and being concerned about fellow human beings and attempting, through art, to better the condition of humankind. I leaned towards art because all my life I was very turned on by the dialogue between my eyes and reality.” And BU, he says, had a good art program.

Common and tawdry surfaces

Even for an artist, Walter Tandy Murch seemed an eccentric. In the 1960s, Murch taught painting at CFA, where he had a habit of trampling his canvas on the studio floor before painting on it, using it, in effect, as a sidewalk, Guillemin recalls. His work won note for its gritty look, and the teacher’s unorthodox method lingered with his student long after he earned a master’s in fine art and had work exhibited in a Newbury Street gallery.

“I went out one morning and swept aside bubble gum and cigarette butts and began to work on one of the most common and tawdry surfaces in modern society,”  says Guillemin of his light-bulb moment in the early 1970s. “It was the antithesis of the precious walls of museums. I found that I could see things and say things that were so naïve, so true, that it gave me an entirely new, fresh perspective on what society was.” His first sidewalk art, completed shortly thereafter, was a reproduction of the Mona Lisa on Boston Common. Sidewalk Sam was born, mixing public art and money-earning gigs with corporate clients. The latter, plus a taste for flirting, helped him meet his wife-to-be.

She was a buyer for Filene’s in 1979, working late one evening at the office, when Guillemin poked his head in. An Estee Lauder ad he’d seen in a dentist’s office magazine had prompted him to propose a campaign to the company: he’d paint pictures using their makeup. Lauder bit and sent him on a tour around the country, during which he’d create his art as Lauder’s clients watched and donate the pictures to nonprofit organizations. He’d stumbled onto a great way to meet women. “I’d be invited out on dates maybe 12 times a day,” he says. “I had pages of girls’ names—”

“Which I found later,” Tina interjects. (“Half of these women work for me,” she realized—Filene’s had been his last tour stop.) At the end of the day, with most of the place dark, he noticed the light on in her office. “I had just come off of the floor, doing all of this boisterously ego-driven stuff, and here was this woman, not seen by anybody, working hard, honest work, good, Puritan labor. And I thought, my God, this woman has a lot to teach me.” Or, as Tina describes it, “He basically flirted.” He asked for her number; she gave him the main number at Filene’s. “I was used to men in three-piece suits,” she says. “I had no idea who Sidewalk Sam was. He was all covered with this chalky, dusty stuff. It was all smudged on his face. I almost called security.”

But he seemed like a nice guy, and they soon fell in love. Today, his wife of 28 years helps with his art and his schedule. In recent years Guillemin has become involved with public concerns. In 2007, following a spate of teen violence, he wanted to create a podium for the majority of kids who were trying to enjoy normal childhoods. Backed by churches and youth organizations, Guillemin’s Paint for Peace sponsored public drawings of peace doves in various Boston neighborhoods, “so that when somebody gets off the bus at night, coming home from work, they see that a happy child made a statement about peace.”

Last year, Guillemin found himself empathizing with the Occupy movement’s populism, but put off by what he considered its exclusionary demonizing of businesspeople. He drew hundreds of foot-by-foot squares in Copley Square and invited passers-by to “occupy your square” by writing something nice about humanity, their family, whatever. He had lots of takers.

So many, in fact, that the project had a fitting denouement for the pavement populist: he ran out of money. “The chalk was beginning to cost $300, $400, $500 a session.”

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