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New documentary captures Sid Boyum’s outlandish art and life

Sunday, January 12, Monona Public Library, 2 p.m., free. Info

(Photo by Gene Coffman.)

Within the first two minutes of Madison-based filmmaker Gretta Wing Miller’s 2019 documentary Sid Boyum: Life Is An Illusion, we’ve already been told that the late artist was a “curmudgeon” and a “lecher,” and been warned not to mythologize him. Boyum (1913-1991) left an indelible imprint on Madison’s east side through his concrete sculptures, from a whimsical polar-bear chair to Henry Moore-inspired abstractions. The non-profit group Friends of Sid Boyum has inspired new interest in Boyum’s life and work, initially forming in 2015 to save Boyum’s abandoned house on Waubesa Street (and the many sculptures on the property) from a county tax auction. Miller’s hour-long film provides a revealing and often humorous overview of Boyum’s art and the impressions he made on local residents as he made his “rounds” at spots that included an Atwood Avenue dance studio, the Ohio Tavern, and the Union House Tavern (now the Malt House). 

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Miller began working on the film in 2000 and went above and beyond in exploring Boyum’s archives, even offering glimpses at comics he created as a student at East High School, the elaborate but playful celebrations of fishing he drew for The Capital Times, his eccentric and sometimes savagely funny Christmas cards, and a fake artifact he allegedly created for The House on the Rock. In addition to the work itself, Miller explores the many experiences and influences that shaped Boyum, including his time working as a photographer for a local machine company and the Japanese art that inspired him to create an elaborate backyard garden. Miller also doesn’t shelter viewers from the occasional misogyny and cruelty Boyum expressed through his art.

Boyum created a legend around himself, not just with his prolific output but with his strong opinions and boisterous claims. The man literally won a lying contest once, and Miller gives the audience space to wonder where the reality ends and the tall tales begin. Did he really go to Bohemian Grove? Did he really apprentice for Ansel Adams? The film neither debunks nor lends credence to Boyum’s more outrageous claims, instead letting us revel in the mystery and absurdity of his public persona. The film documents some of the Friends’ recent efforts to preserve Boyum’s legacy, and features music from Madison-based acts including Mal-O-Dua. This screening, sponsored by the Monona History Club, is free but registration is required.

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