Ferocious Art

8/23/12 -- Cambridge, Massachusetts Popular sidewalk artist and Boston University alumni Sidewalk Sam creating his art in Harvard Square, Cambridge.. Photo by Melody Komyerov for Boston University Photography

8/23/12 — Cambridge, Massachusetts
Popular sidewalk artist and Boston University alumni Sidewalk Sam creating his art in Harvard Square, Cambridge..
Photo by Melody Komyerov for Boston University Photography

“Everything is one pen stroke away from being ugly, or being that which completes the universe.” — Sidewalk Sam

I first met Sidewalk Sam four years ago.  He was one of David’s many friends from an earlier period in his life, most of whom I’d met by then.  Sidewalk and his wife Tina were the last of that set I met, and what a treat it was.

By then Sidewalk Sam, or Bob Guillemin, had been living in a wheelchair for almost 20 years, having been paralyzed from the chest down after falling from his roof.  Being disabled hadn’t at all tempered Bob’s ferocious belief in art as a revolutionary act.  He was so articlate in telling his story and describing his path from a traditional gallery and museum fine art track into creating “art at the feet of the people,” literally on sidewalks, he made me want to interview him and write an article.  For decades in Boston, Sidewalk Sam organized chalk-drawing festivals and public art events that gave everyone a chance to help create large mosaics and murals on the sidewalks and plazas of the city.  I envisioned a piece in The Sun, because Sidewalk Sam, with his story and passion for accessible and experiential art, was exactly the kind of unique individual The Sun portrays.

Now I’m sorry I never got to that writing intention.  Sidewalk Sam died January 26 and his life was celebrated on Sunday during a memorial service.  The sun was high and hot and the yard of Sidewalk Sam’s home with Tina was in bloom, a thick vine of wisteria scenting the air and hanging a lavendar curtain over a corner of a porch.  As I sat on a folding chair in the grass, listening to stories of Bob’s exploits and enthusiams, I saw that the wisteria was also mingled with the leaves at the bottom of a large maple, and burst into a grand spray near the crown of the tree.

Sidewalk would have marveled at the beauty of it, I was sure, even though I didn’t know him well.  But listening to his family and friends speak, I kept hearing about a joyful embrace of the artist in each of us and an unshakable belief in the power of creation in the face of a difficult world.  One of Sidewalk Sam’s best known exhibits was Flush with the Walls, a protest exhibition he staged, along with five other artists, in a men’s restroom at the Boston Museum of Fine Art in June, 1971.  The exhibit drew a good crowd, and over the years Sidewalk drew more and more people to him.

I looked down at the program and Sidewalk Sam’s quote about that one pen stroke.  I vowed to carry away his message — dare to create, be ready to fail and be ready to succeed, witness the beauty in front of you, love your life, and make that next stroke of your pen.  

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About Grace Mattern

Grace Mattern is a poet, writer, mother, grandmother, partner, friend, family member, gardener, triathlete, hiker and for 30 years was the Executive Director of the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. She resigned her position at the Coalition on June 15, 2011 in order to concentrate on her writing, while continuing to engage in the movement to end violence against women as a consultant and advisor. Her chapbook Fever of Unknown Origin was published in 2001 and her full-length poetry book The Truth About Death was published in 2012.
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