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In Conversation
with SISU

WORDS BY LEE GLANDORF
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDREW CASTRO

 

This year, Tracksmith is supporting six projects from runners with creative ambitions as part of our first-ever Fellowship program. Over the course of 2021, we’ll introduce you to the fellows, go behind the scenes on their projects and learn more about their vision. First, we spoke to Dinée Dorame about her podcast, Grounded. Up next, is SISU, the artistic alias of Bob Boyle, an animator and runner from Pasadena, California. We spoke to SISU about his Fellowship project, a series of sculptural Way Markers that will be temporarily installed at various unobtrusive locations along the Boston Marathon course. 

Tracksmith (TS): How did you get started with sculptures?   

SISU (S): I’ve been working in the animation industry making cartoons for most of my career. But I’ve always had this desire to create art that explores life’s deeper themes, most notably spirituality and religion. Like many people, I grapple with traditional religious faith so I’ve been using my personal art in the search of bringing clarity and focus to my own beliefs and struggles. I think my current artwork is a form of visual prayer. I view them as shrines, anthems, and hymns dedicated to the struggle of the human spirit. The imagery I often use dances on the edge of the sacred and the secular. Because I was raised by a devout Catholic father and an even more devout atheist mother, I’ve been questioning religion since childhood. Always floating back and forth, I continually search to carve out my own beliefs. I find the physical making of this art helpful in my journey, with running as another important part of my spiritual toolkit.

TS: Who or what inspires you artistically?  

S: So many artists, past and present, continually inspire me. Picasso, Paul Klee, and Keith Haring seem to be my constant touchstones. I’m also a big fan of outsider art and folk art. Experiencing artwork made by artists with no formal training and sometimes no education whatsoever is magical. And of course, there never seems to be a shortage of interesting and inspiring artists to be discovered on Instagram. Thank goodness for digital art viewing- it has been a lifesaver for me during the pandemic. 

Music also gives me a wealth of visual inspiration. I breathe in all sorts of genres, but artists like U2 and Peter Gabriel have been really influential. I'm wowed by a rock anthem that has the power to connect and inspire a wide swath of people in an accessible way. I aspire to create artwork that can do that in a visual way. Plus, I don’t play any instruments so attempting such a musical feat would be a big stretch for me!  

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TS: How did you dream up this specific project for the Fellowship? 

S: For the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, I have this crazy art dream. I want to create representational 'angels' and place them throughout the city so visitors can find little 'easter eggs’ as they explore the city. That translated into the idea that maybe I could do something similar in relation to running and the Boston Marathon, which are both very meaningful to my life. I’ve often thought about running as my 'religion’, and how running is also a spiritual experience for many. I think more and more people have been searching outside of the traditional church for their faith, support and communal needs in places like CrossFit, Soul Cycle and the running community, especially. Running has been my personal salvation, whether from its meditative qualities, the Church of the Long Run or the learning through discipline and suffering. I think of the Boston Marathon as a pilgrimage of sorts, the ultimate spiritual journey for a runner. Qualifying for Boston is part of that pilgrimage, but the actual run from Hopkinton to Boston is transformative. So I thought, 'How can I use my art to be an inspiration and help lift the runners along the way?”  

TS: What does the Boston Marathon mean to you?  

S: The rich history and heritage are part of what makes Boston so special. The laurel wreath crowns, Heartbreak Hill, the iconic blue and yellow finish line. And having to run a qualifying time to participate elevates the race to another level. For many amateur runners, just getting into the race is like making it into the Olympics. But beyond that, I also have a deep personal connection with the race. 

As a high school runner, I was inspired by Bill Rodgers winning the race year after year. He was my idol. I imitated his style, wore the white gloves, the beanie, and even wrote to him for advice. I’ll never forget receiving his gracious letter in the Bill Rodgers Running Center envelope that I still treasure to this day! As an adult, I finally met Bill at the 2000 Race Expo and got to thank him for his advice and encouragement from two-plus decades earlier. He kindly wished me luck and signed my bib for the next days’ race where I managed to run a PR! 

After a few years of attempting to get back under the three-hour mark, I thought I would give it one last try. That was 2013, the year of the bombing, and I came up short. Although I wasn’t planning on returning the following year, after experiencing the bombing tragedy, I knew I had to be there. I knew it would be special. And it was.

The day before the 2014 race, I attended the Blessing of the Athletes at the Old South Church. There was an added sense of spirit and communion. Half of the congregates were runners clad in Boston Marathon garb. I wept as the organist played the Chariots of Fire theme song and the Olympic fanfare. The tears kept flowing as a bagpiper slowly marched down the aisle. But the most emotional moment was yet to come. Each congregant had a blue and yellow hand-made scarf placed around their neck as an act of communion. These scarves were sent to Boston from thousands of volunteers from around the world to show their love and support to the Boston running community. It was an affirming act of humanity we all needed.

On the way out of the chapel, as we were being bid adieu by the clergy, I asked a minister to give my problematic knee an extra little blessing. She said a few words, and playfully wiggled her fingers like a magician towards my knee. The next day my knee held up and I ran a 2:54! 

Of course, Boston has been memorable in some less glorious ways. One of my most humbling marathoning moments happened just after I took the left turn onto Boylston. Sprinting towards the finish line and feeling like a champion, when out of the blue… a runner dressed as Minnie Mouse zipped past me. Nothing saps the majestic quality of your Boston Marathon finish line experience like being passed by Minnie Mouse! 

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TS: What are some of your favorite points along the Boston course?  

S: From beginning to end it’s amazing! But for me, a special point is actually before the race with the bus ride out to Hopkinton. The hushed nervous energy. The scents of freshly showered runners mixed with the smells of balms, bagels, coffee, Gatorade, and bus fumes. And the walk from the Athlete’s Village to the start line where you can feel the anxiety and energy about to burst from the runner’s chests. Sharing that feeling of going into battle with your comrades is a hard emotion to put into words.

In the early miles, when I’m not having to be laser-focused, I enjoy the charm of seeing families gathered on their front lawns, high-fiving the excited kids, and taking in the beauty of the small New England towns with their  church steeples dotting the landscape. 

But the pure craziness of the Scream Wall in Wellesley is an experience like no other. At the 2012 race, the conditions were predicted to be extremely hot and it was clear it wouldn’t be a day to chase PRs. So, before the race, I joked with my wife that I might actually take the time to stop in Wellesley to collect a few of the free kisses they always offer up!

I also love the chaos of the Tour De France-like crowds along with the chalk drawings scrawled onto the street at Heartbreak Hill. The energy from the crowd propels you upward and, as you crest the hill, pray that your body won’t betray you on the way to Boylston Street. 

Turning right onto Hereford is also a favorite spot in the race. Having your body actually recoil and have your hair stand on-end from the sound of the screaming crowd is pretty cool. And of course, running down that final stretch to that beautiful blue and yellow finish line on Boylston is indescribable!  

Then, after receiving your medal and a banana, you look up and see that you’re standing in the shadow of the gorgeous Old South Church. It’s all pretty perfect. 

TS: What do you hope people take away from your project? 

S: Since Boston is such a sacred race, I wanted to create something physical and tangible that reflects those sacred qualities. On a deep level, I hope it inspires people to connect with whatever personal faith or spirituality that fuels them. Sort of like visual prayers that help the runners tap into the power of focus and intention allowing them to dig deep and give their best effort.  

On a more basic level, I hope runners will take note of the Way Markers and use them when they are struggling and picking out landmarks to aim for. “Just make it to that lamp post. Just make it to the top of this hill.” I’m hoping these markers can assist in that same way to inspire the runners forward. Or maybe they’ll just offer a sense of curious joy and visual surprise as they turn a corner and see one of the golden ‘spirit runners’.   

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TS: How does running inform your creativity?  

S: Creativity can be elusive for me. I never know where, when, or why an idea is going to pop into my head. But I do think I’m most creative when I’m not actively engaged in anything with a pin-point focus. Quite often, running can help me get to that space, just like how many people get their best ideas in the shower. During intense workouts, when I’m focused on hitting a certain pace or split, there’s usually not much that comes in the way of creativity. But,when I hit that sweet flow state during an easy run, it allows my mind to wander and ideas will just pop up out of nowhere. 

As I’ve gotten older and started to move away from performance-based running, it’s freed up my mind. I’m able to  enjoy the beauty of running and the physical gift of moving through space. There’s such a spiritual nature to running for me, and as I mature, I’m trying to lean into that. I think that feeds into my creativity in ways that I’m not yet even aware.

Follow along with SISU's project on Instagram: @SisuHouse .

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