When Boyd Saunders hands the Sunday funny papers over to his teenaged grandson, Spencer Stevens, he thinks back to his love of comic strips. As a teenager, Boyd wanted to draw comics like Red Ryder or Lone Ranger. “When I was young, I had a dream,” he says. “I didn’t know what high art was, and I didn’t care. I loved the funny papers.” Yet, the University of South Carolina distinguished professor emeritus has turned out to be the kind of cerebral artist whose complex pieces can take months or even years to create.
Considered one of the preeminent printmakers in America, Boyd is also skilled in painting, illustration, and sculpture. His talents spill over into other areas, like woodworking. A lovely curved bench that he made graces his front porch. Inside his home, large framed pieces of his art hold court on the wall beside an antique Baldwin grand piano inherited from the family of his wife, Stephanie. Boyd plays it regularly, in part to exercise his brain but also to practice music for the Palmetto Mastersingers, a men’s vocal group that he joined in 1985.
“It has been a wonderful, mountaintop experience for me,” Boyd says about singing baritone with the Palmetto Mastersingers, “because I love the sounds that we make. I love the camaraderie of the men. We’ve taken some wonderful European concert tours. We’ve been to Russia, we’ve been to China, we’ve been to Washington, D.C., but that’s beside the point. I just love the sound we make.”
Though Boyd’s work reveals a great intellect, he is pragmatic about his approach to art: “Maybe I’m a scholar, maybe I’m not. As artists go, I’m quite literate. Whether you say my work is deep or not, it ain’t shallow. It’s not motel room art. It’s not decoration to go in the living room with the blue couch. You know, when somebody comes into a gallery carrying a color swatch, this is not what they’re looking for. The truth of the matter is a lot of people don’t care for it. It’s not a frivolous sort of thing. It’s not frivolous with me. I’m dead serious about it.”
Just after he began graduate school at the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s, Boyd was wandering around in the woods near campus with his sketchbook when he ran into William Faulkner. Boyd neither recognized him nor had read any of his works, but as he developed a collegial relationship with the celebrated writer, he began studying his literature in earnest, reading everything he could find. Faulkner died in July 1962 while the pair was in the process of collaborating on an illustrated printing of Faulkner’s short story “The Bear.” The completed project nonetheless became the centerpiece for Boyd’s master’s thesis.
“We were not close, you understand,” Boyd says of Faulkner. “He wasn’t close to anybody, and I wasn’t that far behind.”
Boyd notes that Faulkner’s influence affects only some of his work. About one particular series of etchings, “Southern Cross,” Boyd says, “People will look at that and say, ‘This looks like it’s illustrated Faulkner, but it’s not. It’s illustrated Boyd Saunders, but it does look like some of the stuff that I’ve done to illustrate Faulkner pieces.”
Boyd’s stint at the University of South Carolina began in 1965; his first studio was a converted men’s bathroom about the size of his current studio at home — close quarters for 30 students. “We got to know each other real well,” Boyd says. “We knew what each other looked like and felt like and smelled like. In those days, I wasn’t much older than they were. It was an interesting time.”
In 1972, Boyd co-founded the Southeastern Graphics Council, now called the Southern Graphics Council International, which currently boasts more than 2,500 members. Initially, Boyd says, “I invited them all to meet me in New Orleans at an academic conference down there. I love telling the story of how the academic conference was a disaster. Everybody scattered. I finally rounded up a small group of printmakers to my room up there in the old St. Charles Hotel, and over a bottle of Jack Daniels with a blinking red light outside the window, we agreed to form a printmakers association.”
In 1977, art historian Tom Dewey joined the group, just before Boyd established an annual printmaker emeritus award. The first recipient of the award was Charleston artist Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, and Boyd wanted Tom, who had established an archive for the group, to document the occasion. Boyd ultimately won the award himself in 2002.
Tom first thought of writing A View from the South in 2001 when the Southern Graphics Council met on the USC campus and the McKissick Museum featured a retrospective exhibit of Boyd’s work. The book, just published this year by USC Press, beautifully depicts much of Boyd’s art — not only the etchings and lithographs for which he is widely acclaimed but also paintings and drawings, all framed by a decade of intense conversations between Boyd and Tom.
Starting in 1985, Boyd also taught for 10 years in the summer program of the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts in Greenville. Virginia Uldrick, who founded the school, recruited Boyd when his younger daughter, Rachel, was studying dance at the school. Many Governor’s School students followed him to USC, where Boyd was named outstanding teacher of the year multiple times. In 2001, the year Boyd retired from teaching, he was named the top art educator in the state of South Carolina.
In 1995, Boyd was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma; an 11-hour surgery was required to remove the brain tumor. He lost vision in his left eye and hearing in his left ear, but he is grateful to have survived. “It was a devastating exercise,” Boyd admits. But his students and friends, some as far away as China, where he had taught a workshop that year, showered him with well wishes. “I’ve got a box of letters that I received. I don’t just mean get well cards. I mean long letters that I’ve saved.”
Boyd not only continues to produce highly regarded, relevant art, but also maintains relationships with scores of students he has mentored. Stephen Nevitt, professor of art at Columbia College, says he is one of hundreds of students Boyd has influenced. After Stephen earned his master’s degree from the State University of New York at Oswego and began to serve as an adjunct at USC, he recalls that Boyd gave some pointers to a group of young instructors.
“He made some comments that totally resonated with me because I knew there was something about his teaching that I really liked,” Stephen says, “but I never could put my finger on it. His feedback to us was when you are critiquing works to concentrate at first on what’s going well with the work, what is successful about it, and later in that process, to talk more what could be done to improve it.”
Part of this teaching philosophy undoubtedly stems from Boyd’s Southern upbringing. The eldest of four boys, he was born in June 1937 on a farm in west Tennessee. Boyd’s wife of 56 years, Stephanie, is from Florida, and they raised their daughters, Sylvia and Rachel, in Irmo and Chapin, where the couple recently renovated their rural home. Boyd is known for his gentle manners, storytelling abilities, and abiding sense of place.
“After we were married,” Boyd says, “I taught in Texas for a few years, and then we moved over here. Christmas time, it was de rigueur that we went back to visit kinfolks. It’s what you do. But then we realized without consciously intending to that we’d come to think of this place as home.”
The Loblolly Society, a scholarly group that meets monthly for supper and the presentation of a research paper, provides one of Boyd’s joys of living in Columbia. All the papers are archived in the Caroliniana Library, which also is collecting Boyd’s personal correspondence and sketches. The university’s rare book room holds Boyd’s illustrated Faulkner works — “The Spotted Horses,” “The Bear,” and “The Sound and the Fury.”
Former students continue to work with Boyd in his home studio. A striking image, anchored by a train trestle, is painstakingly engraved into a large copper plate that lies on a table beside an etching press and a lithograph press. Part of a series called “The Return of the Wanderer,” the engraving, which took more than a year to complete, is a major printing production. “It’s almost more than I can manage by myself,” Boyd says, “so a couple of my students come and help me with the physical labor.”
Boyd’s work is displayed at City Art in Columbia and at Hampton III Gallery in Greenville, which features his lithography, etchings, paintings, and breathtaking bronze equestrian sculptures. The S.C. State Museum features Boyd’s imposing depiction of The Battle of Hanging Rock, 1780, a painting that he began in 1998 and completed in 2000. Boyd produced this work by draping a 4-foot by 8-foot unstretched canvas over a pingpong table on his porch and then painstakingly painting the Revolutionary War battle. The image has appeared on the cover of Walter Edgar’s book Partisans and Redcoats, in addition to several other places, including the Camden telephone book.
In May, Boyd spoke to the Kershaw County Historical Society in Camden about The Battle of Hanging Rock. He finds that writing a speech is similar to composing a piece of art in that he has to think first about what he needs to say, then edit to fit the space or time. “I try to compose with no notion of where the boundaries are,” he says. “The boundaries come later. If I start thinking of boundaries, it stifles me. So, I start working first, then I compress and make it work inside that particular boundary.”
One lesson to be found in Boyd’s work is that excellent art, no matter what the medium, takes time to create, and people should take time to appreciate the complexities of it. Pointing to some of his own etchings, he says, “There’s a lot of stuff in these plates — philosophical and contemplative. Look at them up close and personal. To hang them on a wall in a museum and see people walk by and spend three seconds in front of one saying, ‘Ah, a picture of a kitty cat; I like kitty cats,’ before they move on is disappointing. I hope they might take time to experience the art and reflect on its meaning.”