Amble around Madison’s near East Side and you’re likely to encounter some of Sid Boyum’s concrete sculptures. Perhaps the white lantern located on a landscaped area near the intersection of Atwood Avenue and Winnebago Street, the intriguing tangle of limbs and faces near the intersection of Atwood and Division Street, or the smiling mushroom and brightly painted Chinese urn near an entrance to the Capital City Bike Trail.
Boyum, who was born in 1913, lived on the East Side for most of his life, He created about 70 concrete sculptures during his lifetime, most of them after he retired from a long career as an industrial photographer. He also created elaborate pen and ink drawings, oil paintings, ceramics, and iron works.
One of Boyum’s closest friends for almost 60 years was Alex Jordan, who built the renowned House on the Rock in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. For many years, Boyum served on its board of directors. In his 1990 biography of Jordan, “House of Alex,” Wisconsin State Journal reporter Marv Balousek writes that Boyum’s house in Madison became “a smaller version of the House on the Rock, a mini-museum of sculpture and art.”
When Sid died in 1991, his son, Steve Boyum, inherited the sculptures, many of which weighed hundred of pounds and some of which weighed tons. Almost all were located in the small backyard of Sid’s home.
One piece of sculpture, the Polar Bear Chair, was in Boyum’s front yard. It was reportedly created to keep neighborhood children from climbing on the other sculptures. The polar bear, a much beloved neighborhood attraction, eventually became the focus of what would become a unique community-driven process to preserve Boyum’s sculptures and relocate some of them in public places.
According to Lou Host-Jablonski, who helped organize the community effort to catalogue and relocate the sculptures, a support organization called the Friends of Sid Boyum Sculpture was organized and began working with other neighborhood organizations, including the Schenk-Atwood Revitalization Association. It was, says Host-Jablonski, a green architect with Design Coalition, Inc. of Madison, Wisconsin, a non-profit architectural and planning office on Atwood Avenue, “a wonderful confluence of people around pretty unique art.”
Steve Boyum donated 60 sculptures to the City of Madison, reportedly the largest single art gift the city has received.
After the sculptures were documented and catalogued, community members participated in a two-tiered voting process to select their favorite sculptures and then decide where they should be located. Host-Jablonski says that even on a national level, this process was “pretty unique,” because most communities don’t have the opportunity to provide input about the kind of art they’re going with be living with.
The first sculptures to be moved into their new locations were the Smiling Mushroom and the Blue Dragon. Currently, there are 12 Sid Boyum sculptures owned by the City of Madison in various locations on Madison’s East Side, as well a two owned by the Madison School District, and one owned by the Hawthorne Library. The polar bear chair resides in Elmside Circle Park.
Some of Boyum’s sculptures were sold to individuals. Others are still for sale, although community members hope they will remain on the East Side. All proceeds from sculpture sales go directly to an endowment fund for the restoration and maintenance of the pieces located in public places. The fund is administered by the Madison Community Foundation.
The Design Coalition’s website offers a wealth of additional information about Sid Boyum’s sculptures, including a map of sculpture locations; a catalogue with photographs and descriptions, as well as prices for those still available for purchase; and information about ordering copies of “The Sid Boyum Sculpture Project,” Gretta Wing Miller’s documentary which premiered at the 2002 Wisconsin Film Festival.
Note: A slightly different version of this post was published as feature story in the weekly Neighbors section of The Capital Times and Wisconsin State Journal on August 8, 2007
Additional photographs of Sid Boyum sculptures are available in a set on my Flickr photostream. I’ve also scanned a copy of the Neighbors article and posted in on Flickr because people often want to know what Sid Boyum looked like and the scan includes a photo of Sid from the newspaper archives.