Larry Boyce was the late 20th-century’s greatest champion of the stenciled frieze. An Oscar Wilde-like character in pith helmet and zebra-striped tights, Boyce logged more than 200,000 miles on his bicycle as he pedaled from job to job, painting Victorian-style friezes, crown moldings, and ceilings across the United States. At once colorful and companionable, stubborn and brooding, Boyce was an exceedingly complicated man, whose life started out rocky due to the circumstances of his birth in 1946, and was cut short in 1992, when he died of a host of ailments caused by AIDS.
“Larry was on a mission to re-create the venerable craft of stenciling and Victorian decorative painting.”
During his life and after his death, most people embraced the Larry Boyce myth—everybody loved that guy in the pith helmet and tights, logging all those miles on his bicycle. In fairness, it was easy to embrace this appealing caricature because it was true, as was the fact that Boyce refused to fly after surviving an airplane crash on a trip to Europe when he was in college—depending on who’s telling the story, some, most, or all of the other passengers on that airplane perished. Also obvious was Boyce’s discomfort in a car, leaving him with bicycles as his primary means of locomotion, although he occasionally took a train.
Those were the formative facts of Boyce’s life, but Boyce routinely imbued such details with grander purposes. For example, he liked to compare his unique modus operandi to that of certain 19th-century artists in the American West, who also rode—albeit on horses—from town to town in search of Victorian farmhouses and saloons in need of hand-painted interior ornamentation. Like those Wild West artisans, Boyce was an aficionado and student of Victorian decorative design, but, as it turns out, neither Boyce nor those 19th-century artists were the first peripatetic painters to roam the countryside in search of employment. In fact, the tradition goes back much further, all the way to the late Middle Ages, when, according to Wallpaper author Brenda Greysmith, itinerant artists armed with “stencils of heavy paper stiffened with oil and paint” would walk from village to village to drum up business. “In exchange for bed and board and a small sum,” Greysmith writes, “they would rapidly decorate walls … with bold colours and designs very similar to those popular in wallpaper of the time.”
Historical precedents notwithstanding, Larry Boyce was a true original, one of those rare sui generis individuals you might meet once in your lifetime, and then spend the rest of your days pondering. Charismatic, passionate, and uncontrollably self-absorbed, Boyce was the foremost decorative-stencil artist of his day, widely covered in the home-design press, which was always looking for colorful characters to cover. Because of his early success in the late 1970s and big personality, Boyce inspired equal parts love, admiration, frustration, and exhaustion among friends, clients, and competitors alike. Some got to know him only after he had knocked on their doors as a stranger and proceeded to talk them into letting him paint the ceiling of their foyer in exchange for a place to pitch his tent, three squares, and the “small sum” of one dollar an hour. Many of these roadside clients—there were hundreds—would call themselves Boyce’s friends, but the people who knew Boyce best were those who cycled with him from gig to gig, sharing the hardships of heat, wind, rain, tedium, and minimal personal hygiene that typify the unromantic side of traveling vast distances on a bicycle.
In fact, Boyce met two of his closest associates on the road during cycling treks. The first was Ken Huse, who was riding a custom-made Braxton bicycle from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles when he encountered Boyce, who was then in his mid-30s. “I met Larry in April of 1980 in the middle of the Mojave Desert,” Huse says. “He was going one direction, I was going the other. It was kind of rainy, so I was huddling beneath some boulders. Larry came over and introduced himself. I remember I had broken a strap on my toe clip and he gave me a spare. He was very friendly, verbose, and quite a seasoned bicyclist.”
As Huse remembers it, Boyce was also quite a self-promoter and proselytizer, even in the middle of the Mojave Desert in the rain. “He broke out a collection of magazine articles on his work and started describing what he did,” Huse says. “Larry was on a mission to re-create the venerable craft of stenciling and Victorian decorative painting. He was very, very focused on that.”
For some reason, Boyce was also focused on convincing Huse—a complete stranger, but a kindred cycling spirit—to drop everything he was doing and come work with him on a painting job in Salt Lake City.
“I was on vacation at the time,” Huse recalls. “I was inspired to see the Southwest after having read some of Edward Abbey’s books such as Desert Solitaire. I had a good job as a carpenter waiting for me back home in Juneau, Alaska, but Larry enticed me. He told me that he had made $50,000 the previous year and banked most of it. Later, I realized he’d been stretching the truth, but ultimately, I’m glad he had. If he hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have worked with him. He was convincing, making what he was doing seem like something I had to do, too. I thought, ‘If I don’t try this, I’ll always wonder what might have been.’”
George Zaffle also met Larry Boyce on the road, although their encounter occurred while the two men were riding in the same direction. “It was late July of 1981,” Zaffle recalls. “I had just graduated from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and was bicycling out West. I had been riding for a few months and was heading up toward Lake Tahoe via Highway 4 and Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which is where I met Larry. I had made camp and was preparing dinner at sunset when he came riding in, with his American flag flapping on a fishing pole attached to his bike. He was dressed in his standard outfit at that time—black flight suit, big beard, and mustache. The impression Larry made was always very theatrical. I looked up and thought, ‘I’ve got to meet this guy,’ when a bunch of little kids ran over to him. They were like, “Hey mister, hey mister!” Well, he turned on them and said, ‘Get the fuck away from me, you little shits.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, what an asshole.’ He rode on looking for a campsite, and I forgot about him.
“The next morning,” Zaffle continues, “I hit the road late. It was uphill all the way to the summit. After a couple hours, I could see Larry ahead of me and I thought, ‘Oh, no, there’s that guy.’ I caught up with him pretty quick because I wasn’t as heavily weighed down as he was. He had full panniers, front and back—he was always proud of how much weight he could carry, probably around 125 to 135 pounds.
“As I was coming up behind him,” Zaffle recalls, “I said, ‘Good morning’ with some trepidation, but he was friendly. We rode side by side and chatted for a while.” And as he had done with Huse, Boyce immediately began talking about his work painting friezes and ceilings. “I was actually super interested,” Zaffle says, “because I had graduated with a degree in journalism, but didn’t have a job lined up. So when he told me about his work, I thought maybe I could do it for a while. When we stopped for a break, he showed me his portfolio of newspaper and magazine clippings. I was impressed. I had never painted before; didn’t know a thing about it. Of course, nobody really did. It was a very esoteric, oddball racket that Larry had gotten himself into. But I was intrigued enough to ask if I could join him. He said, ‘I’ll think about it,’ but by the next morning, he was all gung-ho to get started.”
Boyce’s ability to turn chance encounters into life-changing ones doesn’t surprise Ellie Goldberg, who met Boyce in the late 1960s when she was a “theater kid” at a Detroit-area high school. Boyce was attending (or dropping out of, it’s not clear which) nearby Oakland University, where he’d been studying art. “Larry was painting on canvas at that time,” Goldberg says, who remembers his work as being “a little bit out there. He was a character, very much into personal performance, wearing capes and long robes. I mean, it was the 1960s, right?”
“The world is approximately one third level, one third downhill, and one third uphill. That’s two thirds in my favor.”
Perhaps because he had come of age in the ’60s, Boyce felt stifled by life in his native Upper Midwest. He was also trying to get as far away as he could from his family, which reportedly condemned his out-of-wedlock birth, banished him to a mental institution at the age of 14, and disapproved of his sexual awakening as a gay man. And so, in 1973, Boyce bought himself a 10-speed bicycle, pointed it roughly in the direction of San Francisco (via Vancouver, B.C.), and began to pedal. By then, San Francisco was well past its hippie heyday, but the city still had a reputation as a place where one could wear capes and long robes without fear of censure. San Francisco was also a place where Boyce, who by now was in his late 20s, could feel free to be himself, openly and unapologetically gay.
For the rest of Boyce’s short life, San Francisco would be his base, if not precisely his home—he was on his bicycle moving from place to place too much to call it that. Indeed, after falling in love with the city’s Victorian architecture, whose supply had been depleted by several decades of short-sighted and straight-up racist urban-renewal policies, Boyce began his time in San Francisco by leaving town, hitting the road in search of the West’s greatest examples of Victorian architecture. It was a pursuit that would occupy him for the next four years.
During this period, from 1973 to 1977, Boyce became intimately acquainted with the backroads and highways of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington. Years later, in a collection of typed and handwritten pages that circulated among friends, Boyce jotted down some of his observations about being on the road:
“The world is approximately one third level, one third downhill, and one third uphill,” Boyce wrote. “That’s two thirds in my favor. Overall I’ve had more tailwinds than headwinds, but there are the negatives. The laundromat tour of the Oregon Coast; stop every 20 miles, throw everything in the clothes dryer, then back to the downpour. On a good day, you could make 3 laundro-stops. Then there are the lightning storms. There you are in the middle of the Alberta prairie, the tallest thing for a hundred kilometers, even if you lie on your gut in a mud puddle, in the middle of the worst storm in the history of the earth. Or you find yourself in Wyoming’s Sweetwater Desert sixty miles from Muddy Gap, and the whole world is exactly 110 degrees, including the two gallons of water you thought would get you across. That was when I discovered the 2nd of seven reasons why bicycle tourists should love R.V.s—cold water (and beer and soda) in the desert.”
Later, after recounting how difficult it is to sleep in the summer at northern latitudes when the days are long and “twenty God-zillions birds” are feasting on the “billions of insects growing in the damp muskeg,” Boyce makes this astute observation: “I learned the prime rule of travel years ago,” he writes. “No tragedy, no tale. When everything goes wrong, you’re having a great trip.”
Reading Boyce’s notes from the road, though, one gets the strong sense that he could make any cycling trip great, often amusing himself with fantasies of attention and acclaim. “I used to like to whistle and sing while I’d bike uphill, it sets a pace and regulates your breathing,” he begins, somewhat sensibly. Then, Boyce reveals the mindset that helped get him over the toughest mountain passes: “I fantasize that I’m a song-and-dance man. I’m on Broadway, I’m a hit, everyone wants to take me out on the town tonight, to every hip hotspot, and they all love me here in the Big Apple.” After describing himself as a cycling Fred Astaire, “legs a-pumping, singing about Top Hats and Tuxedos,” he reaches 13,186-foot Mosquito Pass, where 20 or so “motor tourists” who have just climbed the pass in their “four-wheel drives” are “looking out over the grandest view in Colorado. … Then this guy comes pedaling up this hill on a bicycle no less, and he’s SINGING! So they all burst into applause, a real ovation. I stopped, bowed to my left and to my right, and lit a cigarette.”
Of course, such experiences, however transformative and psychologically enriching, don’t pay the bills, which is why at some point during most of Boyce’s cycling adventures, he’d run out of money. To solve this perennial problem, Boyce would stop at a stranger’s home, knock on the door, and offer his services as a handyman—Boyce, you might say, was the original Task Rabbit. “I painted barns and houses, fixed fences, and mended toys,” he told the “New York Times” in 1982, “In Arizona, I turned over soil for a woman who said I was cheaper than a Rototiller.”
One day, a job in Seattle required Boyce to re-stencil a mural, which earned him enough money for a new tent. Even more importantly, the job gave Boyce the chance to learn the trade that would occupy the rest of his days. A quick study who was blessed with an amazing memory, Boyce hit local libraries and inhaled everything he could about Victorian design, particularly the renaissance that occurred after the British design-reform movement of the early 1850s. Before long, the essential characteristics of design practiced by the likes of William Morris, Christopher Dresser, and Owen Jones had been absorbed into Boyce’s capacious memory banks.
By 1977, Boyce had settled, more or less, back in San Francisco, and it was there that he began to make a name for himself as a decorative painter. Then, in 1978, he got his big break when he and two assistants were hired to spend almost seven weeks atop scaffolds, painting a frieze and its companion trim on the 15-foot walls and ceilings of Richard Reutlinger’s 1886 Victorian home.
As it turned out, Reutlinger was no ordinary client. A founding member of the Victorian Alliance, which was organized in 1973 to end the architectural genocide that was ruining San Francisco, Reutlinger was a pioneer of what became the modern Victorian preservation-and-renovation movement. His 10-room fixer-upper, located just around the corner from the famous “Painted Ladies” facing Alamo Square Park, would become one of the movement’s prime examples of how a Victorian renovation is properly done, although perhaps only Reutlinger had the vision to see it.
“The house had been on the market for about a year because the ceilings had caved in,” Reutlinger recalls. “I worked on it for nine months before it was even habitable. It was a real mess, but the architecture was great, and I decided I couldn’t live without it.”
Hiring Larry Boyce to paint the frieze in his pride-and-joy’s master bedroom was a leap of faith. “Larry said it would be the first period-furnished room he’d ever painted. I had a copy of the American Life Foundation’s reprint of Christopher Dresser’s 1886 Modern Ornamentation book, so we chose the pattern from that. I really couldn’t afford Larry,” Reutlinger adds, “but we bargained back and forth, finally deciding on a fee of $1,000 for the whole thing.”
The result was a masterpiece of Victorian ornamentation, and Reutlinger’s master bedroom, featuring Boyce’s meticulous deep-red stenciling as its visual crown, became one of the most photographed rooms in the United States—it was even reproduced as a jigsaw puzzle. “It wasn’t my idea of red at the time,” Reutlinger admits today. “I wanted a brighter red, but I’m glad now that Larry toned it down.”
Though the precise chronology is difficult to pin down all these years later, around the same time of the Reutlinger commission, Boyce was leveraging his reputation in places like San Francisco and Salt Lake City to get more gigs in Denver, which is where he met Ken Miller. Miller thought he, too, could make a go of the decorative-painting business, so he started a company called The Grammar of Ornament, which is also the title of a highly influential 1856 book by Victorian designer and architect Owen Jones. Unfortunately for Miller, by the late 1970s, jobs executed by his company, which remains a going concern today, were frequently misattributed to Larry Boyce in the press. Boyce, who, as they say, could talk a pig into a ham sandwich, didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story when it came to burnishing his myth.
An article in the November/December 1979 issue of “American Preservation” magazine provides a good example of the confusion that reigned at that time, as well as Boyce’s uncanny ability to get good press. The article was actually titled “The Grammar of Ornament” and subtitled “A Bicycling Impresario Transforms Victorian Ceilings and Walls,” leaving the clear impression that the driving force behind Miller’s company was Boyce. Within the article itself, Boyce is identified as the “co-proprietor” of Miller’s company. “Together they established The Grammar of Ornament/Denver,” the author of the article writes. Later in the article, the author describes how Boyce’s move back to California from Colorado had left “Miller in charge of the Denver operation” so that Boyce could run “The Grammar of Ornament/San Francisco,” which, according to “American Preservation” magazine, Boyce opened in 1978.
“That was such bullshit,” Miller says today. “I’m the one who promoted the idea of doing a business. Larry wasn’t interested in a business at all because that meant being sedentary and committed, and he wanted no commitments of any kind. I created and founded The Grammar of Ornament. In fact, I had to eventually meet with Larry and an attorney, who strongly insisted that Larry not continue to use my business name.”
In the end, Miller believes he probably only did four actual projects with Larry Boyce. “Larry was a good storyteller, he was very entertaining,” Miller says. In other words, Boyce was very good at drumming up business, which gave Miller and his fledgling company much-needed credibility and experience. But it was quickly obvious to Miller that his relationship with Boyce would not last. “Larry would set things up, collect the check, help for three or four days, and then disappear. When the work was done, Larry would swoop back in and say, ‘Look what I did’—it was all about him. I never saw any money when I worked with Larry,” Miller adds, “but in the beginning I felt I could profit from the relationship if I ignored that fact.”
Miller also glimpsed some of the demons that plagued his would-be “partner.” “Larry was very reticent to divulge information about his childhood,” Miller says, “and when he occasionally did, the stories changed frequently. Frankly, one could never know what was true and what wasn’t. But he clearly had a chaotic childhood, and he had mental issues early on, which affected him the rest of his life. Apparently, when he was relatively young, his family wanted to have him committed, whatever that meant back then. I always felt like these experiences helped explain why he could not focus on anything for very long.”
George Zaffle heard similar tales about Boyce. “I heard that when Larry was 14, his stepfather hated him and threw him into a mental hospital. Larry was always obnoxiously excited, and his mom and stepfather couldn’t handle his energy. His stepfather loved his mom, but he didn’t want this stupid kid around, so they shipped him off. Actually, I don’t know if it was a mental hospital or some kind of a school,” Zaffle allows.
This, then, was the Larry Boyce that Ken Huse met in the Mojave Desert in April of 1980. In the end, Huse decided to take Boyce up on his offer of work, agreeing to meet him in Salt Lake City around the first of June. As Huse wrote in the Volume III, 1981 issue of “Utah: Preservation/Restoration,” “After four long days in the saddle, I arrived in Salt Lake City at the foot of the supremely festooned Emanuel Kahn Mansion. The 1890 building possessed more than its fair share of towers, gables, and ornamentation. Stephen T. Baird, one of the foremost restoration architects in the nation, purchased the Kahn Mansion in 1977 and has kept the edifice in a state of continuous restoration ever since.”
Boyce had painted for Baird before. One of Baird’s then-teenage sons, Robert, remembers well the first time he glimpsed Larry Boyce in late 1970s, when Stephen Baird (1927-2011) hired Boyce to do some decorative painting in the McCune and Armstrong mansions, which his father had also purchased to restore. “He traveled by bicycle,” Baird recalls, “so it was a big deal to get him to come out here. He was a pretty eccentric guy, a real character, but very nice. We’d give him a room in one of mansions, and he’d pitch his tent right inside next to his bicycle. He always had funny gadgets,” Baird adds of his subsequent encounters with Boyce. “He had one of the first Watchman TVs I ever saw.”
“When the Walkman first came out in 1979,” Zaffle says, “Larry got one. He played that Cars album over and over and over, and he’d sing out loud: ‘Here she comes again.’ He also got one of those mini Sony TVs so he could watch TV while out camping in Montana, or wherever. He loved all that tech stuff, the smaller the better. If he were around today, he’d be tweeting like a president.”
Beyond the gadgets, what Baird noticed most about Boyce was his skill as a painter. “He had the ability to pull off a traditional pattern and then key it to colors. A lot of his designs were multifaceted with several layers of stencils. There was also a lot of trompe-l’oeil going on. In some of the rooms, he painted crown moldings that looked like they were real, even though the corner where the wall met the ceiling was square. It was pretty phenomenal. He was almost manic when he was painting,” Baird adds. “The guy would get way into it, working all kinds of hours.”
Shortly after this first Salt Lake City job, Huse headed back to Alaska to tie up a few loose ends, and it was during this period, in the summer of 1981, that Boyce encountered George Zaffle, who continues to earn a living as a decorative painter to this day.
“Larry and I first worked together in Aspen,” Zaffle says. “He showed me how to stencil. Well, he didn’t show me—he told me I should read a book that he had, and then he left me with a client. I figured out how to make a stencil, how to apply the paint, all while the client’s watching. ‘Have you ever done this before?’ the client asked. And I’m like, “I’m pretty new at it, but I’ve got a feeling for it.’ The client realized my answer was a bunch of hooey, but I pulled it off, and then did a few other jobs in Aspen. One contract we landed was a room-and-board trade with the Hodgson family. We met them like we met a lot of prospective clients—by knocking on the doors of Victorians in old neighborhoods. Eventually, we’d find a customer who would let us stay there and give us room and board in exchange for some painting, which is how we met Phil and Patty Hodgson and their kids. People with lots of children were the ones who accepted us the most on room-and-board trades,” Zaffle adds. “I mean, they already had five kids, so what difference was a few more knuckleheads?”
The knuckleheads finally came together as Larry Boyce & Associates in the fall of 1981, which coincided with the publication of an article on Boyce in “Smithsonian” magazine. Fresh from a round of work in Aspen, Boyce and Zaffle hit the streets of San Francisco looking for more. “We were doing the rounds of all the designers in San Francisco, on foot,” Zaffle recalls. “Eventually, we happened upon Jackson Square, which is the interior-design area near North Beach. All the big interior designers who did hotels and other important projects had offices there. Finally, we stumbled into the office of Andrew Delfino, an older interior designer who had the contract to remodel the Fairmont Hotel.”
Delfino was looking for someone to restore the murals in one of the Fairmont’s bars, the Cirque Room. “This was in November of ’81, maybe late October. It was a 1930s lounge that they wanted restored in time for New Year’s Eve. Delfino’s firm couldn’t find anyone to restore the Cirque’s gold-leaf murals, which were all circus scenes, animals, that sort of thing. They were completely at a loss. We told them we could do it, even though we didn’t have a clue of how to begin. We ended up talking to conservators at various museums about gold leaf and getting lots of advice on restoration. We took it really seriously, and wanted to do a good job because it was an historically important site and it would be a publicly prominent job for us when we were done. But we only had five weeks to do it, and because of the unions, they made us work at night so the union painters wouldn’t see us.
“Larry didn’t do a thing,” Zaffle continues. “He wasn’t really a worker. He was good at getting the job and finding the crew, but he didn’t actually work on that job.” Ken Huse flew in from Alaska at the beginning of December, and Boyce added an artist named Ray Regan, who mixed color for Bruce Bradbury’s fledgling wallpaper company in Benicia, to the crew. “Somehow,” Zaffle says, “we got it done on time, and that’s how we became a team, Larry Boyce & Associates. For me, that was our kickoff.”
A trip to San Diego followed, and it was there that Boyce, Zaffle, Huse, and another cycling painter named Monica Edmunds were interviewed by a TV crew for a segment that aired on “The Today Show.” San Diego is also where Larry Boyce & Associates first met Emma Wright, who, like Zaffle, remains gainfully employed in the decorative-painting trade today.
“In 1982, I was an undeclared freshman and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and then Larry, George, Ken, and Monica showed up to paint my neighbor Julie Fitch’s house,” Wright recalls. “That big article on him in ‘Smithsonian’ had just come out, so when Larry knocked on her door looking for work, Julie recognized him. She invited him in, Larry turned on the charm, and Larry’s team ended up spending I don’t know how many weeks stenciling in Julie’s dining room and family room. It was two houses down, so I was there all the time.
“I was fascinated by the story of Larry riding his bicycle around the western United States painting ceilings,” Wright continues, “in part, because I was on the bicycle team at UCSD in La Jolla. After finishing the work at the Fitches, they were going to take a three-week break and then rendezvous in Aspen, Colorado. I ended up meeting them in Aspen, and I’ve been painting ever since.”
As a budding artist, working with Boyce and company would prove an inspiration to Wright, but as a cyclist, riding with “the guys,” as she calls them today, was a rude awakening. “I took a bus from San Diego to Glenwood Springs, which is outside of Aspen,” Wright remembers. “I had bought a new touring bike, which was still packed in its box. When I arrived in Glenwood Springs, I sat outside the bus station and assembled my bike, the panniers, everything right then and there. That first day,” she says, “I realized that touring and racing were two completely different sports. When I was on the bike team, I could do 30 or 40 miles before breakfast. But riding 40 miles from Glenwood Springs to Aspen was completely different. It was all uphill, it was in the Rockies at high elevation, and then there was the weight of the panniers, my sleeping bag, and everything on my bike. It took me all day, and I arrived just in time for dinner. It was pretty brutal.”
The next day, Larry Boyce threw the 20-year-old into the deep end. “Larry believed that the work we were doing was learned rather than innate.” And so, Wright learned. “He gave me an X-ACTO knife and some beautiful Bradbury wallpaper that I had to cut into certain shapes. I’d never done that before, and you can’t mess it up, right? You get one cut. He showed me how to do it once, and then, I don’t know, I guess some people pick things up easier than others. I loved it. Turned out, I was pretty decent with an X-ACTO knife.
“For that job,” Wright continues, “Larry was combining stenciling and striping with pieces of Bradbury wallpaper. That was the only time I can recall when we combined painting with wallpaper. Every other time, it was all painting.” And it was on that first job in Aspen that Wright had an epiphany. “I remember I was painting in a stairwell when I realized that this is what I was supposed to be doing with my life.”
Wright worked on a second project with Boyce in Aspen to paint the ceiling in an old railroad car that Teddy Roosevelt had used on hunting expeditions. “The owner had turned it into a French-cuisine restaurant called the Parlour Car,” she says, but Wright and her co-workers were hardly eating French cuisine. “One thing about Larry, love him to death, but boy, business was not his forte. He pretty much gave it away, which meant we were living on rice and cereal.”
With winter approaching, the painters headed west to San Francisco and landed at the Zen Center, though Larry did not join his colleagues by living there. “It was a room-and-board trade,” Wright says. “George and Ken realized decided they needed to set up a home base because no one could ever find Larry. He had all this publicity and press, but no address, no phone number.”
Indeed, during the first half of the 1980s, Zaffle and Huse handled much of Larry Boyce & Associates’ affairs. For example, a 1983 letter on “Larry Boyce & Associates” letterhead (the logo was designed by Ray Regan) to Stephen Baird in Salt Lake City is signed by Ken Huse. Similarly, in the “Sources” section of a 1984 book called American Victorian, George Zaffle is listed on page 207 as Boyce’s contact person. “We were in San Francisco for the next three or four years,” Wright says, “although Larry would periodically have to get out of town. He would get restless, and cycling was the only way he could keep his weight down—he had a wicked sweet tooth.”
It was around this time, in 1982 or ’83, that Boyce met Tom Ciesla, with whom he would live and work almost until the end of his life. “I met him through a mutual friend of mine in Denver,” Ciesla says. “I don’t remember the exact year. We were just interested in each other as people, but then he realized what I could do—I had a degree in design—so I agreed to start traveling and painting with him. I was at a stage in my life when it was time for an adventure.”
Although not a cycling partner like Huse and Zaffle, Ciesla learned a lot about his colleague and lover, particularly concerning his early years, filling in many crucial details of Boyce’s story. “He didn’t have a very good childhood, let’s put it that way. I think he was committed for a little bit, but I would blame that on his grandmother. She saw him as a child of sin because he was born out of wedlock. She used to kneel and pray for his soul, so I’m sure that impacted his psyche in some manner. And then, of course, his family condemned him for being gay.”
Upon returning to San Francisco, the couple moved in with an artist named William Gatewood, who gave them room and board in exchange for a ceiling painting in Gatewood’s “meditation room.” “I did it all by myself,” Ciesla says. “That was my charge for room and board. Larry disappeared after about a month. I didn’t care, though. I had abilities, and I ended up working for William, helping him with his fine art. About a year, year-and-a-half later, Larry and I moved into our own apartment on Baker Street and set up shop there. Larry would be gone most of the time,” Ciesla adds. “He’d be around for six months and then disappear for a year. He had wanderlust.”
One place Boyce wandered to during that time was Port Townsend, Washington. The trip occurred in July of 1984, and it marked a rare instance in which Boyce consented to ride in a car. The vehicle was Ken Huse’s Datsun station wagon, and the destination was the Ann Starrett Mansion, a bed and breakfast in need of authentic decoration. “It was just the two of us,” Huse remembers, “one of my last jobs with Larry. The owners of this grand Victorian B&B, though very nice to work for, were low on cash. We agreed to do the job for a cash down payment, a 1973 El Camino pickup, and a 16-foot catamaran. But in order for them to sign off on the pickup, they had to pay the lapsed registration, and in so doing, we lost the cash down payment. We ended up doing the job, and got some money from the sale of the pickup and catamaran, but it took months to collect, long after the job was done and we were back in San Francisco.”
Other gigs were more lucrative. Indeed, by 1985, Larry Boyce & Associates was reaping the benefits of the publicity generated by Boyce and the hard work of Zaffle, Huse, and Ciesla. That crew would do a high-profile commission in San Francisco for fashion designer Jessica McClintock, as well as a legendary job in Los Angeles for Bette Midler.
“Larry and I were teaching a class at UC Berkeley extension,” Zaffle begins. “Turns out one of the students in the class was a friend of Bette’s and apparently she recommended us. One day, out of the blue, we get a call from Bette Midler, saying, ‘My friend was in your class and says you guys are good painters. Why don’t you come down, we can meet,’ and blah, blah, blah. Of course, Larry was beside himself because Bette Midler was a goddess to gay men. Larry’s partner at the time, Tom, designed most of Bette’s job. He did a great job. It was sort of Wiener Werkstätte meets Will Rogers.”
“I designed and redesigned and redesigned and redesigned and redesigned and redesigned,” Ciesla recalls. “We would sit for hours on her living room floor, looking through books of impressionist paintings, and she’d go, ‘Wouldn’t you love to live there?’ And then she’d turn the page and say, ‘Oh! Wouldn’t you love to live there?’ So we designed things according to what we were looking at. It took forever to get her to commit.”
Unlike other Larry Boyce & Associates projects, once the Midler job was secured, Larry Boyce did not disappear, at least not at first. “Larry stuck around for a while,” Zaffle says, “because he didn’t want to miss out on being around Bette.” “Larry didn’t work on the project,” Ciesla says. “He hung around for two or three weeks, and then he took off. It was just me, Ken, and George.”
According to all three men, Midler was pleased with their work during the months the crew painted there—Huse’s journals show him working on the project from late November 1985 to early February 1986. “We often worked from 9 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night, literally,” Ciesla says.
As Zaffle remembers it, the only time Midler ever complained was when he periodically presented her with their bill. “She’d go into theatrics,” Zaffle says, “slapping her forehead with her hand, staggering backwards, and falling on the couch, saying, ‘You guys are screwing me! I haven’t been this screwed since…’ and then she’d come up with some funny line. And I’m like, ‘Bette, it’s only 25 bucks an hour per guy.’ Then, one day, I was bicycling to work and saw a headline on the cover of ‘Variety’ or ‘Billboard,’ I forget which. It said that Bette Midler had just signed a three-movie deal with Disney worth $23 million. I stopped my bike, bought a copy, and put it in my bag. The next time I gave her a bill, and she started to do her little routine about how we were screwing her, I pulled out the magazine and said, ‘Don’t tell me $25 an hour is breaking you.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Oh, fuck you,’ and then wrote me a check. So, we got along great. She made us angel hair pasta for dinner every night. The job looked very nice, and we ended on fine terms.” “The day we were leaving,” Ciesla remembers, “she threw a party for us. We had Dom Pérignon, fruit tarts, and a whole smoked salmon, although she called it ‘lox.’”
Then, something happened, although it is not clear exactly what (our attempts to reach Midler were unsuccessful). “We got wind that her normal painter, a friend of Bette’s, came to the house and was horrified to find that Bette had hired other people to do work she normally would have done,” Zaffle says. “Somebody from Hollywood or Beverly Hills came into the house and said, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ And that threw her into a tailspin,” Ciesla says.
The rest of the story has become a key part of the Larry Boyce myth. “We heard that much of our work had been painted over,” Zaffle says, “and when Larry found out about that, he hit the roof.” According some people I spoke with for this story, in response, Boyce took a video of Midler’s film “The Rose,” erased it, and then sent it to Midler with an angry note. Others told me that, in fact, Boyce went out and bought a bunch of Bette Midler records, smashed them to bits, and sent her a box of that. “I’m not aware of exactly what shenanigans he did,” Zaffle says. “I could see him doing either or both.”
When asked about all this, Ciesla is adamant. “Larry wouldn’t do that,” he says flatly. “And she wasn’t angry. She did write us a letter saying that she would like to have some of the money back. But look, lady, we were there for months, and you approved everything. There was no anger on Larry’s part. The time it took to do the job was her fault because she couldn’t make up her mind about anything.”
It was now 1986, and, as usual, Boyce on the road. One of his goals that year was to do a few projects with Jeff Greene, whose firm, EverGreene Architectural Arts, had just been given a prestigious contract to restore the decorative finishes inside the Vice President’s Office in the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. Boyce did not work on that job, or EverGreene’s stunning restoration of the Library of Congress a year or so later, but he did work with Jeff Greene on a few things, including Greene’s home in Nyack, New York.
“He did a beautiful Japanese stencil on our dining room, floor,” Greene says, “but unfortunately, Larry had lice, and my wife was just beside herself that he would bring the crabs into our house.”
Another job was for a businessman who lived in the high-priced Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta. “Remember back in the ’80s when you’d pull up to a stop sign and somebody would come up to your car and try to sell you a set knives, a vacuum cleaner, or whatever?” Greene asks. “Our client was the guy behind all that. He wouldn’t go anywhere without a bodyguard, who carried a gun, and he had a beautiful, young wife. At the time, he was building a multimillion-dollar house, whose designer wanted us to do all the decorative painting. It was a huge, fabulous mansion, and they wanted every room completely decorated to the nines. We totally had the job, but there was no contract. In today’s numbers, it was a half-million-dollar job. So we sent a whole crew there, six or eight of us, and we’re about to start painting when the owner comes in and says, ‘I don’t want to pay $500,000. I want to pay $350,000.’ Suddenly, it’s like I’m negotiating with the guy on the corner for a set of knives. But then he says, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll pay you in cash.’ And he brings in a grocery bag—I kid you not—filled with 10- and 20-dollar bills. ‘Here’s your deposit,’ he says. ‘All right?’
“So, that was the Atlanta job that Larry worked on,” Greene continues, “although he certainly did not see it through. In my experience, Larry didn’t finish jobs. I never held him accountable for that. I think of him as this one-of-a-kind extraordinary guy, who took things to the nth degree, but I don’t think anybody expected him to finish things. He had inspiration, he had ideas, he got everybody excited with this infectious enthusiasm about ‘template painting,’ his phrase for stenciling, that was contagious. And once the ideas were there and the work had started, it wasn’t exciting anymore, so he’d get on his bicycle and ride off into the sunset.”
Other journeys in the second half of the 1980s took Boyce back into his beloved Southwest. During one of these rides, Boyce pulled into the Hotel Congress in Tucson, Arizona, and offered to paint the venerable hotel’s historic lobby.
“I got a phone call one day from our manager, Mary Ann Brazil,” the hotel’s co-owner Richard Oseran recalls, “and she said, ‘There’s a guy down here who wants to paint the ceiling.’ And I said, ‘We just had the ceiling painted.’” Along with his wife, Shana, the Oserans had only just purchased the hotel in 1985, so the prospect of spending a great deal of money on the lobby in the spring of 1986 or 1987 (the couple cannot remember exactly when work started) was not a high priority. But as usual, Boyce was able to ingratiate himself with his prospective clients, and for the next three springs, until 1989, he painted—without assistance—their hotel’s lobby in sections. “It was like he was our artist in residence,” Shana remembers. “It was great.”
For her part, Brazil took some convincing. “I was hysterically against painting the lobby,” Brazil says. “There were cattle brands up and down the columns in the lobby. ‘This is our history,’ I said, ‘you can’t paint over that.’ And the Southwest designs he was appropriating were motifs were from Mibres Indians of New Mexico, so they weren’t even from the area. But I liked Larry, he had amazing energy, and he picked great colors. So I made my peace with it.”
In the second half of the 1980s, the various members of Larry Boyce & Associates were beginning to go their separate ways, while Boyce himself had no steady address, sometimes sleeping in a closet below a stairway at George Zaffle’s place, a space not much larger than his tent, although it was covered with Bradbury & Bradbury wallpaper. For a brief period, Boyce and Ciesla also lived in what was then a B&B in San Francisco run by Barbara Chambers. “They stayed in one of the bedrooms while they were stenciling our ‘French room’ with all these pretty flower designs,” Chambers recalls. “One time, he was having a tussle with Tom. He came down while I was fixing breakfast for 12 people, and sat on the floor, telling me all his woes, his arms around his legs pulled close to his body. He said, ‘Am I talking too much? Because if I’m talking too much, I’ll leave.’ I just can’t explain to you how effervescent, how positive, he was,” she adds, “like a little boy with this great personality, you know?” According to Chambers, Boyce confided other things to her. “His mother hated him because he was gay,” Chamber says. “She didn’t want him around, and it just killed him. I hate her,” she says now, still angry at the memory, “but he was a love, just a love.”
Other times, Boyce would spend the night out at Bruce Bradbury’s place in Benicia. Even though Bradbury’s wallpaper company was tough competition to Boyce’s hand painting, the two men were good friends. “He wouldn’t stay in the house,” Bradbury remembers of these infrequent sleepovers, “because he was worried about earthquakes, and the house was unreinforced cinder blocks. So he would sleep in the yard, coming in to eat, drink, and argue. One morning, in the kitchen, he announced, ‘I’m going to Connecticut.’ And just like that, he packed up his bags and got on his bike. Two months later, I heard he was in Connecticut.”
It may have been on this trip that Boyce visited his good friend from his Michigan days, Ellie Goldberg, who was now living in Massachusetts with her husband, Efrem, and their two daughters. Over the years, the two friends had stayed in touch. “He just appeared one day, riding up on his bicycle in those leotards he wore,” Goldberg says. “He camped out for a few weeks—he wouldn’t sleep in the house. In exchange, if I remember correctly, he offered to paint my daughter’s bedroom. He created this gorgeous stenciling for her. People couldn’t believe it was a hand-stenciled wall. I still have his original stencils.”
By the late 1980s, the flow of painting jobs was no longer as steady as it had once been, and by the early 1990s, Boyce was beginning to suffer from health problems caused by AIDS. In the summer of 1991, no longer able to afford his share of the rent with Ciesla, Boyce moved out. “We were still friends, and I saw him all the time,” Ciesla says. That was when Boyce began making the rounds of San Francisco churches looking for shelter in exchange for work. Almost a dozen churches shunned him, but finally, that August, Boyce knocked on the door of Old First Presbyterian Church and announced “Hi! My name’s Larry Boyce, and I have AIDS.”
The appearance of Boyce at Old First’s door was fortuitous because one of the congregation’s most prominent members was an attorney named Stephen Taber, for whom Boyce had worked before. “I’d known Larry for probably 16 years,” Taber says. “In 1976, I moved to San Francisco, which was where Larry was headquartered. He was a member of a group of artists called Artistic License, whose members did various crafts associated with Victorian restoration.”
In San Francisco, in 1980, Taber met his future wife, Sarah, at Old First, and in 1981, he purchased an old Victorian in need of restoration. “It was a huge place on the Panhandle,” Taber says. “Not long after I bought the house, Larry knocked on our door and said, ‘Do you have any ceilings you’d like stenciled?’ I said, ‘Yes I do, but I just bought this big house so don’t have a lot of money left.’ He says, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll give you a really good price. I won’t let my company know.’ I said, ‘Larry, you own the company.’ And he said, ‘Well, then I won’t tell my bookkeeper!’ Larry was a great artist, but a terrible businessman.
“The first thing we had him do was the entrance hall,” Taber continues. “He did a number of other projects there, too, and I had a lot of contact with Larry in the early 1980s. I didn’t hear much from him in the late ’80s and early ’90s until he knocked on the door of our church.”
“No tragedy, no tale. When everything goes wrong, you’re having a great trip.”
As fate would have it, Taber was the chairman of Old First Presbyterian’s building committee. “I got together with Larry and we talked about various possible projects, including the exonarthex, or entrance, of the church which was really bare and foreboding. I said, “Could you come up with a ceiling design here, and we’ll see if we can get the church to approve it?’ Larry agreed. He said, ‘I will paint a ceiling for you if you provide me a place to live.’ Well, we still had our huge Victorian on the Panhandle, and it had this wonderful little basement room. I said, ‘Why don’t I redevelop it and you can live there during the project?’ Larry thought that would be great, so we built a studio apartment for him in our house on Oak Street. We built a bathroom in there, a little kitchenette, and a cubby-hole bedroom, complete with Bradbury wallpaper. It was a spectacular little space, 5 by 8 feet, or something like that. It was his little hideaway for about a year.”
A committee of church members, including the pastor’s wife, Elizabeth Hart-Anderson, was formed to work with Boyce on the exonarthex ceiling’s theme and design. “Larry started researching all the elements,” Taber remembers. “Over time he developed a design, sketched it out, and then we reviewed all the possible colors.”
According to Taber, as Larry got closer to the church’s community, he started attending worship services. “He loved the singing,” Taber says. “There was one particular lady in the congregation who was an incredibly good singer. He loved hearing her sing. All the while, of course, his health was declining. He was getting a lot of treatments for AIDS, but they couldn’t help people very much at that point. Sometimes he would come to the church, climb up into the balcony, lie down on a pew, and just rest there during a service. By the time we were finally ready to paint, Larry was in no position to do it. So we recruited a bunch of volunteers from the church to do the actual painting, with Larry as their teacher.”
One recruit who got very involved was artist and congregation member Nancy Westsmith. Volunteers from Larry Boyce & Associates included George Zaffle, who Taber remembers as being particularly helpful when it came to the application of gold leaf, and Tom Ciesla, who cut out most of the stencils required to realize Boyce’s design.
“It felt really good to be a part of that,” George Zaffle says. “We had parted ways around ’87-’88, so that last job provided closure, and it was a great way to honor Larry. His design was real simple, a sketch on a piece of paper, so the challenge was to help 23 members of the congregation turn that small idea into an actual ceiling. Ultimately, it was a beautiful result.”
Despite all the help and support, Boyce never saw his last ceiling. “Just as we were starting the work, Larry’s health declined to a point that he had to be hospitalized,” Taber says. “He formally joined the church in his hospital room at San Francisco General, and we continued to update him on the progress of the project even when he was put into the AIDS hospice program over at Laguna Honda. We knew these were his last days, so all his friends and volunteers were there, basically holding a vigil at his bedside.”
Ciesla visited him every day, and colleagues he had not seen in years also showed up. “I had just come back from Brussels,” George Zaffle says, “where I’d studied at the Van der Kelen, the finest decorative-painting school in the world. I had brought back 66 sheets of samples—painted wood, painted marble, mural patterns, stencils, all kinds of decorative-painting techniques. When I took them into Larry’s hospital room and showed them to him, he was just so happy. He said, ‘Fuck, I’m dying, but I’m leaving behind the best crew in the world.’ He was so proud we were carrying on.”
A week or two after he entered Laguna Honda, Larry Boyce died. “I was at Laguna Honda that night,” Bruce Bradbury says. “A woman from the church was also there. He’d been unconscious for a long, long time, but on that night he woke up, opened his eyes, looked at us, and started singing a made-up a song about how good it is to have friends. After he sang it, he just sort of faded back into unconsciousness. He died that night.” It would take three more years for a church full of volunteers to finally complete Larry Boyce’s last painting project.
In anticipation of his death, Boyce had designed his casket and selected a grave site. “He wanted to be buried in a cemetery very close to King’s Canyon-Sequoia National Park near Fresno,” Zaffle says. “He absolutely loved the mountains,” Ciesla says, “ so he was buried in a place where his grave faces the mountains.”
Time will tell, but that may not be the end of the myth of Larry Boyce. “Larry had an idea that he wanted to have his grave marked with motion sensors,” Zaffle says, “so that when anyone got close, a voice over a loudspeaker would announce, ‘Hear ye, hear ye: You are now entering the realm of the greatest bicycling ceiling painter in the history of the world, the great Larry Boyce!’ followed by his story—just a quick little blurb so people would know who he was and that this is where he’s buried. I’ve always wanted to do that for him. With today’s technology, I think we could almost pull it off.”