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Spiritual Life

Discovering the Madonnas of Somerville

By Rich Barlow
July 14, 2007

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Josh Michtom is leaving Somerville. That probably means little to you, but it marks the end of his Madonna mission.

For three years, Michtom has prowled the streets of the city with his camera, shooting pictures of homeowners' outdoor religious statues, the vast majority of them representations of the Virgin Mary.

His obsession, as he calls it, has netted 241 pictures and began when he noticed the statues while strolling his neighborhood with his newborn son to get him to sleep. His pictures are for sale at somervillemadonnas.com, and a sampling can be seen at Boston's Paradise Lounge.

The 30-year-old public defender in Cambridge District Court is leaving the state for Connecticut, where his wife has a new job at Wesleyan University. Excerpts from a recent interview follow.

Q You're not personally religious. So why do this?

A I like cities and streets, the feel that a city has based on the experience of walking. That's the emblematic thing of Somerville streets. It's those statues. There are a lot more in East Cambridge, there are some in Medford, I've seen some in East Boston and Chelsea, but nowhere with the concentration that Somerville has.

Q You grew up in Brooklyn and Portland, Ore, What's so special to you about Somerville?

A It has its own sort of culture, which I suppose is the result of waves of immigration and heaven knows what confluences of race and class. When I first moved here, I had perhaps the bias that most people from New York have, which is that everything outside New York and also probably Staten Island, isn't really worthwhile. But I really like Somerville.

Q How did you first notice that Somerville was flooded with statues of Mary in particular?

A When my first son was born, I was studying for the bar, so I was home a lot with him. He would need long walks just to fall asleep, as babies are wont to need. I started to notice more and more [statues] strolling him. I started carrying a camera.

I thought, Somerville's only 4 square miles; maybe I could walk every street and photograph every single one of these. They're all very much of a similar form. They're roughly the same size. They often have a little grotto-style shell backing.

Q What does the ubiquity of Madonnas or religious statues say about either Somerville or about Madonna?

A The obvious thing is that there are a lot of Catholics. I've been told that it's a particularly Portuguese custom, especially in the Azores. You see the Azorean flag a lot [in Somerville]. To me, it's about the environment, the visual cues that go with the familiarity that one feels in one's neighborhood.

Suppose you've been abroad for a while or in a different region. And then you come back to where you're from, and you hear people speaking your language or speaking your language in the way you're accustomed to hearing it. It has a familiar, comfortable feeling. I imagine, even more so for people who grew up [in Somerville], the presence of those [statues] has that comfortable familiarity.

Q Has doing this project affected your spirituality? Are you going to put up a Mary in your yard in West Hartford?

A No, I'm not. I wasn't religious when I started, and I'm not religious now. In my more cantankerous moments, I have quarrels with organized religions. But I like seeing the ways that people practice religion. It tells you something about them. For a lot of people, religion is an important part of their lives. It's their beliefs, the rhythms of their weeks or months or years. So I like hearing church choirs. I like seeing people walking to temple on Saturday as a family. I feel like it gives me a passing insight into what those people are about.

Q Any unusual or favorite [statues] stand out for you?

A There's one at 76 Properzi Way. It's pretty, because it's sort of weathered and the paint's a little cracking. The eyes that are painted on look a little off when the paint starts to chip, a little bit blurry. But the colors are bright. It's still lovely, but ill-cared for. It's striking. I like also the empty shells.

To me, the essence isn't the Madonna per se, it's the custom of keeping statues in yards, and the shells are part and parcel of that. I feel like people who are from Somerville don't really think twice about the empty shells. They just think, oh, somebody's Madonna was there.

Also, there's one where you can see the outline of where the Madonna was, from the sun weathering the paint behind it. One could, were one so inclined, ascribe all sorts of symbolism and meaning to that.

Questions, comments or story ideas can be sent to spiritual@globe.com.

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