Leaning down from his wheelchair, Bob Guillemin dipped a brush into a yogurt cup filled with purple paint late one October afternoon in 1995 and highlighted the chalked words “For the Homeless” to complete a painting spanning a Government Center sidewalk.
Those brushstrokes marked the return of one of Boston’s best-known artists to his museum of choice: the city’s streets. Mr. Guillemin, who was 75 when he died in his sleep in his Newton home Monday morning, was Sidewalk Sam to the thousands who had watched him work since the early 1970s and uncounted others who encountered the chalk and painted art he created throughout Boston. On that October day, he completed his first public drawing since falling 21 months earlier while working atop the roof of his home, an accident that paralyzed his legs.
“The streets of Boston have baby-soft skin,” he told the Globe as he worked. “I need to feel them, I need to have my brush move over them, I need to feel their glory. I need their history.”
Over the course of four decades, Mr. Guillemin sketched his own entry into the city’s history, recreating the masterpieces of famous artists on Boston’s pavement and cracked cement. Unlike the original paintings that hang guarded and cared for in museums, his art was destined by design to last months at best, and sometimes only hours until rain washed his work into the closest gutter.
An artist who trained at Boston University and in Paris, he was rising through the traditional ranks of galleries and museums until the night he escaped a crowded reception for his one-man show at the Institute of Contemporary Art. “I went out on the streets and swept aside cigarette butts and bubble gum, and drew, in chalk, a copy of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ ” he told the Globe in 2007. That was the first of thousands of sidewalk drawings, paintings, and murals he created across the United States, most in Boston.
As a student in Paris, he landed a job at the Louvre, copying the work of European masters. For the first half of his Sidewalk Sam years, he could be found on all fours, chalk or a paintbrush in hand, recreating paintings by artists such as Degas, Renoir, van Gogh, and Vermeer, and augmenting their masterworks with originals of his own. He’d draw a da Vinci at a subway stop or sketch Millet’s “The Gleaners” at a corner near Old South Church.
“It was in Europe that I first saw artists doing chalk drawings on sidewalks,” he told the Globe in 1974. “I had no idea at the time that I’d be giving Boston a touch of Paris a decade later.”
Having once considered entering the priesthood, Mr. Guillemin took an almost evangelical approach to bringing art to those who never visited galleries. “Art is too closely associated with academia. People tend to think of art as august, quiet, elevated, always in somber museum settings,” he told the Globe in 1980. Mr. Guillemin removed art from its reverential perch, never to be touched, and placed it under the toes of passersby. “I believe art should be pedestrian,” he added with a smile.
He did not, however, believe in “art for art’s sake.” Mr. Guillemin once taught art to recovering addicts in a halfway house and then set up a show of their work near Boston’s Naked i strip club, where some had previously been employed. In 2007, he worked with 1,000 youths from a city summer employment program to create a 4,000-square-foot white dove on City Hall Plaza to promote peace.
“He wanted art to make a difference, an immediate difference, a visceral difference,” his son John of Warsaw said. “That’s what my father hoped to do with his life: He wanted to change people’s lives and change the city and change the public space for the better.”
The second of four children, Robert Charles Guillemin was born in Dayton, Ohio, to Victor Guillemin and the former Eileen Whall. His father’s work as a scientist took the family to Oak Park, Ill., where Mr. Guillemin finished high school.
Mr. Guillemin first attended Boston College and was elected freshman class president. He finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois and received a master’s of fine arts at Boston University.
Traveling to Paris, Mr. Guillemin worked at the Louvre and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He married Jeanne Garrigan, who also was studying in Paris, and they had twin sons. Their marriage ended in divorce years later.
Returning to the United States, Mr. Guillemin showed his work in places such as the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis and galleries in New York City, and he served as leader of the Boston Visual Artists Union. He also taught at city schools, private schools, and at Harvard en route to abandoning a traditional artist’s arc and taking his work to the streets, which offered an appealing lack of permanence. A drawing that took him eight hours to create might vanish in minutes under rain and scuffing feet. “My father loved the ephemeral quality of his work,” John said.
‘He wanted to change people’s lives and change the city and change the public space for the better.’John Guillemin, son of public artist “Sidewalk Sam”
Mr. Guillemin also liked the transformative nature of his art. Children who joined him in creating murals became artists themselves. “He was very dedicated to the notion that art had a social purpose,” his other son Rob of Brookline said. “On a micro level, it connected people literally on the sidewalk who would not have a reason to stop and interact at all.”
In the mid-1980s, Mr. Guillemin married Tina Green and a few years later, they launched ArtStreet, a nonprofit that promotes art as a part of daily life.
Initially, Mr. Guillemin worked like a busking street musician, tying a child’s beach pail to his workbox, which pedestrians filled with $15 to $25 a day. At first, police threatened to arrest him for defacing public property, but soon fame arrived. A front-page feature in The Wall Street Journal drew attention, and he began receiving commissions from the city, universities, small businesses, and corporations.
He also received numerous grants and requests. In the 1970s, Mr. Guillemin drew a portrait of Mayor Kevin White on City Hall Plaza and spent days on a 3,600-foot-long copy of the city’s tourism logo. For Boston Art Walk in 1983, Mr. Guillemin was commissioned to recreate 50 art masterpieces in colored chalk on sidewalks. In 1990, he painted Storrow Drive meadow green for Earth Day. To extend its life for weeks or months, he coated commissioned work in acrylic spray, varnish, or polyurethane.
“My art is temporary and nobody can buy it,” he told the Globe in 1983. “It doesn’t become a part of posterity. It’s for here and now, and it’s for everybody.”
A service will be announced for Mr. Guillemin, who in addition to his wife and two sons leaves two brothers, Victor of Cambridge and Richard of Duxbury; a sister, Marie Jeanne Raphael of Redway, Calif.; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Guillemin died with a collection of Robert Frost’s poems tucked beside him in his bed. The accident, while working on his roof years ago, led to a host of health challenges, but ever the optimist, he often turned the story of his 30-foot fall into a moment of epiphany.
“On the way down I said, ‘Oops, that’s it; I’m going to die,’ ” he told the Globe in 2010. “And then I hit the ground. I wasn’t unconscious. I couldn’t move three-quarters of my body, but I felt so happy, because I still had the gift of life.”