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Q&A with Tony Matelli, artist behind Wellesley College's scantily-clad sleepwalking statue

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  February 6, 2014 12:55 PM

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David L. Ryan, Globe Staff

Sleepwalker, painted bronze. by Tony Matelli.

A realistic-looking statue of a man sleepwalking in his underwear near the center of Wellesley College created a stir not only among the women on campus, but also news and media outlets across the country Wednesday.

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Handout photo
Sculptor Tony Matelli
The painted bronze statue, titled Sleepwalker, has caused hundreds of Wellesley students to sign a petition asking the college's president to remove the undies-clad man. The administration has made no indication that it will be moved.

Artist Tony Matelli, who will speak at Wellesley tonight to celebrate the official opening of his Davis Museum exhibit New Gravity, said he was surprised and delighted that Sleepwalker has captured the attention of America.

We caught up with Matelli Wednesday afternoon to find out more about Sleepwalker, his artistic intent, and Matelli's reactions to his newfound fame.

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What were you aiming to do or say with Sleepwalker?

The sculpture is of a man who is hopelessly lost and out of place. What I was wanting to do with the work is just present that idea of misplacement, of loss and abandon and of being asleep at the wheel, really. It's a feeling we all have often, and a feeling we relate to.

Why did you decide to place the statue where it is?

A lot of outdoor sculpture feels very stiff and very solid and dropped from outer space almost, and it doesn't interact with the landscape. I wanted to create something that feels misplaced and vulnerable, because that's how I feel sometimes. Also, it was suited for the space. It was designed to be in a landscape.

Not sure if you've noticed, but your Sleepwalker has a lot of people talking.

Iím surprised by the reaction itís elicited in some people. I think itís great. I was talking with the curator of the exhibition and my assistant this [Wednesday] morning, and we were saying, 'When was last time a work of art was talked about so much and got so much attention?' I canít remember when. Itís been a long time since anyone spent this much time with a work of art.

I think itís great that students are getting engaged to write and think about it. I think if everyone spends time with it and keeps their heads cool, a lot of good will come of it. Itís good for art in general, not just the piece, because art is open and designed to solicit responses, no matter what they are.

I think itís terrific Ė I couldnít be happier, and I feel privileged itís on the Wellesley campus and has gotten so much attention.

Some students on campus are upset about the statue -- say that the statue is in to visible a location, and can be a trigger for those who have experienced sexual assault. What do you think about that?

Everyone brings to a work of art their own interpretation, their own history and their own baggage. I think people might be seeing things in that work that just arenít there. I think that those people should think through that and work through it and get to understand the work a little better, and also understand their feelings a little better. I just donít see that in the work Ė I think theyíre seeing something thatís just not there.

Do you know of any plans for the administration to take down or move Sleepwalker?

As far as I know, there are no plans to remove it. It was chosen for that site for specific reasons. It was placed there because you can see it from the upstairs exhibition room, and it becomes part of the show in a different way. When you see him through the window while youíre warm inside looking at the other 20 sculptures, that one feels more misplaced, and more vulnerable. It was chosen for that location specifically, not arbitrarily. Thereís no sidewalk there, so students arenít forced to walk next to it.

As far as it being moved, there probably are other locations, but Iím not eager to move it and I donít think museum is planning to move it either.

Some students on campus were also saying they were concerned the statue was a man in an all-female environment.

Iíve also done women statues Ė Iíve done a female Sleepwalker. This just happens to be male. It has nothing to do with this being a womenís college whatsoever. The manner is mundane and irrelevant Ė thereís no reason it being a man; I mean, itís half our population. Men are not surprising in our landscape, and it should not be a surprise in any landscape.

Did you model the Sleepwalker after anyone specific, like a brother or uncle?

[Laughs] Itís not a relative Ė itís a model I know. He is an artist and involved in theater and dance and in good shape so he could hold that pose for a long time. He just happened to be the perfect age, and available to physically model this sculpture. I changed some stuff about him Ė for example, I changed his hair; heís not bald. So itís not a portrait. For me, itís supposed to stand in as anonymous in a way, as just any man.

Are there any other outdoor sculptures on Wellesley's campus as part of your exhibit?

Yes, heís not the only lost figure Ė there is also a stray dog, which is also painted bronze. Itís a seeing eye dog, so conceivably, these two were once together. The seeing eye dog is walking somewhere else, on the other side of campus, but itís rendered in the same way; the aesthetic looks similarly fashioned. The thing about the seeing eye dog is its owner is not there Ė that brings to mind a whole other set of questions.

What's your educational background as an artist?

I studied sculpture and received an MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Detroit. Itís similar to Wellesley in a sense Ė itís on a big beautiful landscape, and cloistered away from reality a bit. But that was a while ago. Iíve been practicing in New York for the past 17 years.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about Sleepwalker or your exhibit?

This is one piece in a much larger exhibition. Itís easy to talk about this work and lose that fact. I hope everybody sees that this piece is a part of a larger of exhibition and Wellesley sculptures. Thereís more in museum that should be viewed along with Sleepwalker.

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Matelli will host an artist talk at Wellesley College tonight, Feb. 6, in Collins Cinema at 5:30 p.m. The talk will be followed by a reception 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Davis Museum galleries and museum.

Tony Matelli: New Gravity will be on exhibit from Feb. 5 through May 11 in the Bronfman and Chandler galleries, and Feb. 5 through July 20 in the Jobson and Tanner galleries. The exhibition is free and open to the general public.

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Follow us on Twitter: @ycwellesley,@yourwellesley, @jaclynreiss

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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