by Andy Kraushaar and David Erickson, Wisconsin Historical Society
In July 2015, Mark Fraire of the Dane County Cultural affairs Commission invited staff members of the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) to review the contents of the Sid Boyum house at 237 Waubesa Street. The County had recently taken over the house for non-payment of taxes and had planned to sell the house and all of its contents at public auction in September of 2015. Mark wanted to save the art within the house and asked if WHS could make an assessment.
Abandoned for over 15 years, the interior of the house was in very rough condition. Water damage, animal remains and the overpowering smell of mold permeated the house. Piles of paper lay everywhere, and we immediately realized that we needed to save a great deal of flat art before further deterioration occurred. Dane County gave the Wisconsin Historical Society permission to remove from the house items it deemed of historic value. Ownership of the material would remain with the County until title and intellectual property rights could be determined and transferred to WHS.
In addition to Sid’s sculptures and paintings, the house contained a significant library of books, assorted artifacts, photographic prints and negatives, photographic equipment and personal effects, as well as an abundance of artwork created by Sid’s son, Steve Boyum. We concentrated on collecting the work of Sid Boyum rather than the work of his son. Steve’s work tended to be more abstract and personal in nature and less documentary and political. Thanks to funds and volunteer effort provided by the Friends of Sid Boyum, Steve’s work has been saved and transferred with other materials from the house to Paul Davis Restoration.
Sid had artwork spread throughout his house. We found Sid’s artistic output stored, piled and stashed away in every available room, and we also found some noteworthy pieces by others. Several signed Robert O. Hodgell prints were found in the house (not currently part of the WHS collection). Hodgell, a student at the UW-Madison, later became an Art Director at the University.
A painted profile portrait of Sid done by Cloyd Sweigert, a California based painter and cartoonist, lay buried in a stack of drawings. The portrait, dated 1966, shows Sid with a beanie on his head and the ever-present cigar in his mouth.
Sid was a good friend of Alex Jordan Jr., the founder of the House on the Rock. Acting as Artistic Director during the formative years of the attraction, Sid worked with Alex in creating, planning and acquiring pieces for display.
Tom Every, better known as Doctor Evermor, also worked with Sid and Alex at this time. All three admired one another’s skills, shared talents, and collaborated on several projects.
After several visits to the house, we determined that the effort most relevant to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s mission: to gather all of the photographic material, original paper art and films created by Sid Boyum.
We concentrated on his work at Gisholt Machine Company, work for neighborhood businesses (Martin Glass, Union Tavern, Cecil’s Sandals, and Virginia Dane Company) and the political and satirical cartoons that he made for the Ice Chippers and Ducks Unlimited. We left behind Sid’s oil paintings and preliminary sketches. We felt these fine art works were less suitable to the collections at WHS.
[Editor’s note: Sid’s oil paintings and other fine art works are now safely housed at Paul Davis Restoration’s facility]
We couldn’t save everything. Some material had deteriorated too much, due to the severe conditions and fluctuating temperatures. Many diacetate photographic film negatives stored in the second story of the un-air conditioned house had completely deteriorated due to the extreme heat. We had to discard other material damaged from sitting in water from the leaking roof.
We retrieved several thousand 4”x5” black and white negatives, several hundred 35mm color slides and negatives, and hundreds of photographic prints. We also gathered many hundreds of drawings and prints, including greeting cards, advertising and slogans for local businesses, graphics for Gisholt Machine Company, political signage, and opening day fishing posters.
It’s very easy to get excited about the Opening Day of Fishing Season artwork. Sid created a commemorative poster every April from 1963-1989 for The Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times’ Sports Section. During those years, Sid planned, created, staged, rehearsed, and finally drew an imaginary story for annual publication in the newspapers. Arguably his best and most unique work, these masterful fish tales called out his skill as an artist, his tactical skill and planning, his wild imagination and his famous ability to lie and creatively expand the truth with the best.
In 1976, Sid proudly received the Burlington Liar’s Club Award with a classic lie: “During a recent cold snap, I saw a nightcrawler steal the fur coat off a caterpillar and crawl back in his hole.” This became a graphic element in his fishing poster for 1987. In exchange for the use of his artwork, the newspapers gave Sid offset lithograph prints of his artwork to distribute as he wished. The drawings depict fantastic, fanciful scenes relating to fishing lore and fishing iconography. Sid’s fishing poster artwork was scattered throughout the house. We found only one original pen and ink drawing of the opening day series, from 1973. Other formats including a variety of reproduction processes were discovered for many of the other years, but a few are missing entirely.
We are guessing that during the years that the local papers were on strike, 1977-1979, that Sid did not produce the fishing poster. If so, we are only missing the 1983 poster. If you know of copies in any format for the years 1965, 1968, 1974, 1977-1979, 1983, 1984 or 1986, please contact the Wisconsin Historical Society. We only have relatively poor reproductions for those years. Interestingly, Sid apparently used many of the 4″x5″ black and white photogaphs to help provide content and visual inspiration for the pen and ink drawings.
In 1968, Sid’s neighborhood friend Gene Coffman became interested in the idea of developing a washable make-up paint that he patented under the name of Disguise Stix©, produced by his company Gratco Corporation. Gene asked Sid to provide the artistry to demonstrate the capabilities of this new product. Together they made a series of photographs of nude women that Sid painted using the Disguise Stix© . Several color prints and slides found in the collection depict these experiments. Gene’s son, Eric Coffman, loaned some images to WHS for scanning and inclusion in the online collection. Gratco Corporation later evolved into Graftobian, a professional make-up company based in Madison, Wisconsin, owned and operated by Eric Coffman.
Photographs of Sid show up throughout the material salvaged from the house. Several dozen of these images could be classified as self-portraits. Don’t rush to the conclusion that Sid enjoyed taking light-hearted “selfies” as a sharing social experience or as scrap-book material. As you learn more about the context of these images, it becomes more obvious that Sid took these photos with a clear purpose in mind. Sid took photographs of himself posing with props, in staged settings or served as a model for some longer-term project that might show up in a fishing drawing or a greeting card. Sid’s use of self-portraits appears more the work of a serious, planning, tactician than a personal or social benchmark created for enjoyment.
The work to organize the material began in the fall of 2015 at the WHS. This work was time-consuming and somewhat daunting. We found most of the flat artwork in large piles, with very little organization. We initially organized the material by format and then further organized it by subject.
The material contained in the WHS Boyum collection gives an archivist or cataloguer a solid visual impression of Sid’s physical nature, clues to his demeanor and evidence of how he spent his life. Manuscripts containing letters, journals and other correspondence allow the researcher to become familiar with Sid’s sardonic personality. Sid’s work and documented history provides insight into his personal thoughts while you come to know his technical and artistic skills as a writer, artist, photographer and filmmaker. You learn what he does for fun and what he is intensely serious about both professionally and personally.
Some of the material is so personal and private that sharing these discoveries violates good judgment and an implied trust as a researcher. From what we know, we’d certainly enjoy sharing a beer or two with the man and clear up a couple of questions.
With help from students of the UW School of Library and Information Studies and the Friends of Sid Boyum, the Wisconsin Historical Society is attempting to digitize the best of the material to make it easily accessible to the public. Currently, the WHS has almost four hundred Sid Boyum images available on its website, with more on the way. Eventually, when physical ownership and intellectual rights are sorted out, prints will be available to help support the Friends of Sid Boyum and WHS to save the artwork of Sid Boyum.