A History and Tour of Sid Boyum’s Backyard

by Theresa Marche, Friends of Sid Boyum conservator

Sid's backyard as it appeared in the 1970s.
Sid’s backyard as it appeared in the 1970s.

It all started out slowly, but inexorably at 237 Waubesa Street, a small residential property on the east side of Madison, WI. Owner,  photographer, and neighborhood eccentric, Sid Boyum had a thing for Asian cultures, Japanese in particular. So of course he would build a Japanese-style teahouse and garden in his small backyard. Early photos show an open lawn with a small red and yellow teahouse in the back corner, with a large torii gate between two small (but deep) fishponds. A tiny bridge, just for show, and an open Japanese-styled picnic pavilion completed the scene. There was Sid in a kimono, to welcome guests to one of the many parties enjoyed in that setting.

Of course no Japanese garden would be complete without some garden lanterns. However, instead of using the traditional ceramics, Sid used what was available, and made his own lanterns out of concrete. Big ones, small ones, red, white, and blue ones, they came in all shapes and sizes.

Buddha bas-relief in Sid Boyum's living room.
Buddha bas-relief in Sid Boyum’s living room.

At the same time, Sid was also working on the inside of the house, turning the foyer into an Egyptian temple, the kitchen into a circus, and in the living room a giant golden Cambodian Buddha head set against a painted landscape filled one wall, while “stalactites” hung from the ceiling. According to his son, Steve, it was only when Sid had filled the house that he really started making art in the backyard (personal conversation, summer 2005).

Maybe it was his work with the fantasy environments created with friend Alex Jordan at House on the Rock, or maybe it was just the freedom allowed with the medium of concrete, whatever it was, by 1973 Sid started filling the backyard in earnest (Rajer & Host-Jablonski, 1999). By the time he died, in 1991, the small space held some 60 concrete sculptures and Japanese lanterns. There was barely room to move about.

After his death, son Steve facilitated the donation of some 13 sculptures to the City of Madison, the single largest gift of public sculpture in this country. The unique story of that community-based project is told in Gretta Wing Miller’s film, The Sid Boyun Sculpture Project (2002).

The Sid Boyum Sculpture Project from Downtown Dailies on Vimeo.

Another 4 to 5 were sold to create an endowment for upkeep of the sculptures. These are on private property in the neighborhood.

However, a substantial number of sculptures remain on the Waubesa Street property, along with remnants of the original teahouse and pavilion. Several of these sculptures are absolutely immense.

Buddha Head sculpture in Sid's backyard
Buddha Head sculpture in Sid’s backyard

In the center of the yard is a gigantic red Cambodian Buddha. This is the same serene face that graces the living room of the house. Indeed, that indoor Buddha is almost certainly the actual mold used to create this concrete sculpture in the yard. The headpieces differ, and that on the outdoor Buddha is made from paper cup and wood block concrete molds (Bor Yasar, 1988), unpainted and deeply textured. The sculpture’s base is adorned with medallions and molded concrete owls.

"Sphinx" by Sid Boyum
“Sphinx” by Sid Boyum

Another owl has found its way to the top of a large yellow lion-headed sphinx with an Egyptian headdress. The bare breasts on this creature echo a theme found through much of Boyum’s work. Beside the sphinx is a smaller Cambodian temple lion with fierce eyes and teeth and a textured mane. This is a rather faithful reproduction of an actual cultural icon. It is rather interesting that the lions are side by side, along with a flat cast lion silhouette. Sid made his own lion’s den.

The lion is not the only Cambodian sculpture in the yard. A beautiful goddess, adorned with only a headdress, jewelry and a belt looks over the back of the yard. Built of finely sculpted concrete, she seems to sway to unheard music. While both Cambodian pieces now lack color, an earlier source reports copper-colored paint (Bor Yasar, 1988).

"Crowning" by Sid Boyum
“Crowning” by Sid Boyum

Another massive sculpture depicts a woman at the actual moment of childbirth. Titled Crowning, it is actually homage to the female form, writ large. Sid has added grace to an otherwise awkward position.

"Gates of Hell" by Sid Boyum
“Gates of Hell” by Sid Boyum

The former Japanese-style picnic pavilion has become instead the Gates of Hell. At one end is a giant face, mustached and bearded, with the open mouth framing the entrance and the words “Live in fear; Die in despair” carved around the portal. Inside, at the back is a fanged, bat-winged, demon of purple and red painted concrete. The actual source for this demon may be traced to as evidenced by photos taken by Sid (Historical Society)

A massive white concrete lantern looms in the far corner of the yard. A concrete pot of metal flower shapes fills the top level. Beside it is the figure of a singing cowboy and his girlfriend, and while his face and hat are realistically formed, the rest of the sculpture is abstracted, with openings in the body reminiscent of Henry Moore figures.

A similar figure rests beside the house. A reclining female nude painted white, she is a mixture of biomorphic form and sharp angles and planes with voids. This is another massive sculpture. Several medium to small lanterns, a faceless goat-legged satyr, and numerous female torso forms fill the rest of the yard. The old teahouse is there as well, moldering in the shade in the far corner.

Japanese Temple as it is today.
Japanese Temple as it is today.

Over the years of neglect since Boyum’s death, many trees have grown up in the yard, and vines once covered the sculptures. The fishponds remain, although the torii gate had disappeared. Much of the overgrowth has been cut back recently, and, with removal of the sculptures donated to the City of Madison, one can more easily move about the space. However, there is much work yet to do, with filling in holes left by the sculptures that were dug out, trees that should be cut, and sculptures that need to be cleaned and stabilized. This is work the Friends of Sid Boyum sincerely wish to do.

Bor Yasar, B. (1988) An Artist Around Us: Sid Boyum. Unpublished paper in Art Education, U. W. Madison.

Miller, G.W. (2002) The Sid Boyum Sculpture Project: The story of a uniquecommunity-powered public art initiative. (Video and DVD) Madison, WI: Design Coalition