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Artist bridges the gap between poet, landmark

‘Sidewalk Sam’ paints verses on Longfellow

By Jack Nicas
Globe Correspondent / July 9, 2010

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Hunched over in his wheelchair, he lowers his paintbrush to the concrete. He dips and dabs and then returns for a rest. He sits and smiles, and when his eyes meet passersby, they smile too.

He is Sidewalk Sam, a street artist known across Boston for four decades of putting color on city streets, like chalk murals in the Back Bay and on City Hall Plaza. The 71-year-old’s real name is Robert Guilleman, but pretty much everyone, including his wife, calls him Sidewalk Sam.

Yesterday, he was set up under a tree in Cambridge, at the foot of the Longfellow Bridge, painting a striking portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century poet.

“Today is delightful,’’ he said, grinning from under wire-frame glasses and a rickety straw hat. “I’m meeting elegant people in this salon of shade.’’

The painting, which could last up to a year before wearing away, capped a three-day effort to remind walkers of the Longfellow Bridge where the span got its name.

As temperatures soared Tuesday and Wednesday, he brushed out the first two verses of Longfellow’s 150-year-old poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,’’ along the northern pedestrian walkway.

“Two days ago was brutal,’’ he said yesterday.

But he persevered, greeting walkers and bikers with the same delight as always.

“He sat out here the whole day; I was very impressed,’’ said Dan Conley, a city worker who has been removing fencing along the Red Line tracks all week. He took a break yesterday to read the poem and photograph it with his cellphone.

Tourists and locals tilted their heads as they walked across the bridge yesterday, following the words with their steps: “One if by land, and two if by sea; And I on the opposite shore will be.’’

“It’s such a great idea. It inspired me to look up the poem online,’’ said Annie Walsh, 31. “I told him, ‘Great artwork,’ and he said, ‘You’re a great art critic.’ ’’

Street art, he said, “raises amazing and important things like the rough surface underfoot to the level of a cathedral and pedestrians to the level of kings and queens.’’

Guilleman had originally wanted to be a Jesuit priest, which brought him to Boston College. But then he went to Boston University and earned a master’s degree in art, and after a few solo exhibitions of his paintings, he decided his art belonged on the street.

In 1991, he and his wife, Tina, launched the nonprofit ArtStreet to promote art as a part of daily life.

Yesterday, as Longfellow’s beard grew under Guilleman’s brush, lunchgoers crossing from Cambridge to Boston stopped to admire. Two Draper Laboratory employees, David Beckman and Felix Pineau, took a photo with the local celebrity.

“I’ve known about his work ever since I was a child,’’ Pineau said, “so just coming here and seeing him actually do a painting is just impressive for me.’’

Guilleman’s wife looked on with a smile. Although she looks the part of an artist — red bandana, yellow dishwashing gloves smeared in blue paint, and two toes peeking out of frayed holes in her slip-ons — she is not. She is the business side of their nonprofit and the pillar of support in his life, especially since the accident in 1994 that paralyzed Guilleman from his chest down.

“On the way down I said, ‘Oops, that’s it; I’m going to die,’ ’’ he said of his 30-foot fall off the roof of his Newton home. “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.’’

The Longfellow project was encouraged by the nonprofit WalkBoston as part of its push for more walking and cycling space in the bridge’s upcoming renovation.

Guilleman was happy to help, but he also just loves painting for the public.

“Listen, Nick, you are doing such a gorgeous job on that hair,’’ he told volunteer painter Nick Carlisle, 31, as he swept white into Longfellow’s locks. “I love it.’’

Jack Nicas can be reached at jnicas@globe.com.

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