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

in CFA, CFA Newsmakers, Visual Arts
October 23rd, 2012

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.” -Rich Barlow Read more on BU Today