Art & culture


Ship from shore

The weekend before last, J and I went to the Charlestown Navy Yard to see the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship. The Charles W. Morgan was built in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1841 and represents the height of the New England whaling industry, when New Bedford was known as the “city that lights the world” because of the amount of whale-oil it produced for oil-burning lamps. The Charles W. Morgan remained active for 80 years and weathered 37 voyages. Her recent visit to Boston was part of a three-month tour of historic New England ports—her 38th voyage—ending at Mystic, Connecticut, where she serves as a museum ship at the Mystic Seaport.

Windlass

When I learned a nineteenth century whaling ship would be briefly docked in Boston Harbor, I knew J and I would have to visit. J is fascinated by big boats—every July, we tour whatever naval ship visits Boston for the holiday—and I’ve been interested in New England whaling ever since reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick when I was an undergrad. While many readers are frustrated by Melville’s frequent and factual digressions about whales and whaling, I loved learning about this aspect of American history. If you expect Moby-Dick to be a novel about a man called Ishmael, you’ll roll your eyes whenever Melville regales you with yet another chapter filled with facts and figures. But if you read Moby-Dick as a natural history of whales and the 19th century whaling industry, you’ll realize Ishmael’s story is just a tiny portion of a much larger tale.

Crossing the gangplank

You can read about whaling in books, but seeing actual artifacts brings home what it must have been like to be a young man on a ship that tracked, killed, and butchered whales for a living. During one of the class sessions when we discussed Moby-Dick, my undergraduate lit professor brought a harpoon to class so we could feel how heavy and cumbersome they are, especially when attached to the long, coiled ropes that connected injured whales to the whalers trying to kill them. Could we imagine standing in a small bobbing rowboat, trying to hurl a heavy harpoon into the eye of a creature large enough to crush your ship?

Harpoons

In a subsequent semester, my professor took things one step further, inviting his students for a backyard cookout where he floated a whale-eye-sized watermelon in a plastic wading pool he borrowed from the child next door. Students in that class learned how difficult it is to hit a watermelon with a harpoon, even if you’re standing on dry land…but even on dry land, it’s incredibly easy to destroy a plastic wading pool with your missed shots. The child next door got a new wading pool that year, and students got a whale of a tale to tell their grandkids someday. Surely no melon tastes sweeter than the one you had to harpoon yourself.

Whaleboat

J and I didn’t harpoon any watermelons aboard the Charles W. Morgan, but we did get to see several whale boats racing across the harbor. A whaleship is large enough to house a crew of men while they locate, hunt, and process the whales they’ve killed, but a whaleship is too big to actually chase a whale. For that, each whaleship carries a handful of small rowboats that are the actual vehicles of the hunt. Each of these whale boats is led by an officer who directs a crew of men to row as close as possible to the whale so that the harpooner can take a shot.

Whaleboats

When I read Moby-Dick, I was captivated by how vulnerable the men were as they rowed right next to enormous animals who could easily smash or capsize their boats. The most terrifying moment of the hunt happened after the whale was harpooned and subsequently fled, dragging the whale boat on a so-called Nantucket sleigh ride. Men in a whale boat simply had to trust their prey would eventually tire, rising to the surface to gasp for air while being pelted with more harpoons. This was the tragic moment of a successful hunt, when the men witnessed at close range the agonized expiration of their massive prey.

Try pots

One of the innovations of the New England whale trade was the idea to convert slain whales to whale oil at sea, in the whales’ own watery habitat, rather than towing entire carcasses back to port. This meant installing try pots on the main deck so squares of blubber could be rendered into barrels of whale oil: liquid gold. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes in great detail the try pots on the fictional Pequot and the messy, smelly, and downright dangerous act of using fire to produce a slippery, highly flammable liquid on a rolling ship. The try pots on the Pequot sounded huge, like something straight out of Hell, but the try pots on the Charles W. Morgan were modestly sized, more in keeping with the economy of space that any ocean-going ship must observe.

Crew's quarters

On a whaling ship, no inch of space can be wasted, and this was amply apparent when we poked our heads into the crew’s quarters, where bunks filled every available space. Whereas the captain and officers had more spacious quarters near the rear of the ship, the crew was housed in the front, right next to the so-called “blubber room” where casks of whale-oil were stored. The crew, in other words, slept in the dirtiest, most foul-smelling part of the ship whereas the captain and officers enjoyed more comfortable quarters.

Captain's quarters

Ironically, the thing that ultimately saved whales from whaling ships such as the Charles W. Morgan was the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859. In the 19th century, whale oil was the most coveted product of whaling: whale meat and baleen were far less marketable. As kerosene lamps and natural gas pipelines became more widespread, whale-oil became less popular: why go to sea to light your lamps when the earth itself bleeds fuel?

'Spouter' the whale

Now that we know the environmental costs of a petroleum-based economy, we might be surprised that Big Oil saved Big Whales, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Melville himself recognized the value of a true whale of a tale, the downfall of the fictional Pequot being based on the real-life demise of a Nantucket whaleship called the Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.

Spinning a whale of a tale

Both the Essex and the Charles W. Morgan were considered “lucky” ships because of the number of profitable voyages they weathered, but ultimately the Charles W. Morgan was much luckier. The Charles W. Morgan survives as a restored and cherished artifact from an earlier age, whereas the Essex survives only in the pages of the books (and the imaginations of the readers) it inspired.

Click here to see more photos from the Charles W. Morgan’s visit to Boston. Enjoy!

Dharma room

Whether you sit by yourself at home or with others at a Zen center, meditation is an intrinsically solitary activity. As soon as you settle onto your cushion, there is nothing to entertain you but the parade of thoughts in your head. Regardless of who might be sitting, squirming, or sleeping on either side of you, what happens in your mind during meditation is entirely your business. Nobody can save you from your thoughts, and nobody can either blame or praise you for them, either.

Dharma room altar

Several weeks ago, headlines highlighted a study that revealed many people would prefer to shock themselves than to sit quietly with their own thoughts: presumably we’ve reached a point where our collective consciousness is so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic gadgets, we can no longer tolerate simple solitude. What future does meditation have in a society where we can’t stand our own quiet company?

Stigmata

We might blame smartphones and other high-tech devices for eroding our collective attention spans, but the problem predates these devices. Henry David Thoreau decried his generation’s interest in news stories and light reading, even the low-tech entertainments of books and newspapers serving as mindless distractions. Years ago, before smartphones were ubiquitous, I remember walking through the Public Garden on a sunny afternoon when every lone person I saw was listening to music on headphones: an endless parade where each person marched to her or his own personalized soundtrack. Even a homeless man had a battered boom box perched atop a shopping cart piled high with his possessions, the volume loud enough to drown out any semblance of solitude. Why spend quiet time with your own thoughts when even entertainment is easily portable?

Haloed

Over the years, I’ve learned I actually enjoy solitude. I like sitting and doing nothing; I like the sheer boredom that comes from simply observing whatever thoughts roll by. Meditation is the formal practice of doing nothing in quiet isolation, but there are plenty of other things I do that are similarly solitary. Although sharing your writing is a social task, the act of writing is inherently solitary. A lot of novice writers like the attention that comes from having an audience, but many of these writers crumble when faced with the quiet loneliness of the blank page.

Buddha and friends

I’ve often said I was fated to become a writer because I like the sound of pen scratching paper. It’s fine and good to enjoy any attention or acclaim that might derive from something you’ve written, but at a certain point, you have to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the lonely hours it takes to produce, revise, and polish that work. There might be people who are born with a natural talent for meditation, writing, or both, but I’ve certainly never met any. In my experience, both writing and meditation are deep-rooted things that flourish with sustained attention. If you’re going to last as a meditator or a writer, you’d better like spending time with yourself, your closest companion being the cushion beneath you or the blank page before you.

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Solitude.

The Wall at Central Square

The other night, I made a list of demons. I suppose “fears” is a more accurate term for the items I typed into a private Google document, but “demons” is also a fitting description. Now that it’s summer and I have time to work on the nonfiction book I’ve been largely procrastinating over the past few years, I decided to grab my personal demons by the horns by listing all the fears that have been keeping me from writing.

The Wall at Central Square

In about 15 minutes, I came up with about the same number of fears, many of them contradictory. I’m afraid I won’t finish the book, but I’m also afraid I’ll finish and it won’t be perfect. I’m afraid I’ll never publish the book, but I’m also afraid I’ll publish and face the letdown of not knowing what to do next. I’m afraid that if I finish and publish the book, nobody will read it…but I’m also afraid people will read it and think I’m pretentious, hypocritical, or self-absorbed. I’m afraid, in a word, to write the book, but I’m also afraid not to write it.

With this particular menagerie of demons in mind, I went back to a list I wrote sometime in the late 1990s, when I was hopelessly mired in the middle of a PhD dissertation that refused to be written. What I wrote then sounds entirely familiar:

The Wall at Central Square

I scare myself when I think that…

1. I won’t finish my dissertation.
2. My dissertation won’t be good enough, or scholarly enough, or theoretical enough.
3. I won’t be able to get a job after graduation.
4. I’ll leave something out of my dissertation.
5. I’m already too far behind.
6. I’ll get stuck.

The Wall at Central Square

Apart from the fear about getting a job after graduation, the demons I wrestled with while writing my dissertation more than a decade ago are pretty much the same as the fears I face today, as I try to write a book-length piece of creative nonfiction. The fear-demons that plagued me when I was working on my dissertation didn’t, in retrospect, have anything to do with that specific project, which I did indeed finish. Instead, they had everything to do with me tackling a big, daunting task that threatened to take forever to finish. That task could have been a dissertation, a marathon, or a mountain: regardless of the goal, the demons kept whispering “You can’t” and “You won’t” and “Who are you to dare think you could?”

The Wall at Central Square

It shouldn’t be surprising that I or anyone would face this sort of insecurity, as even the Buddha himself wasn’t immune from this kind of thinking. One of my favorite stories about the Buddha involves him sitting down to tea with his arch-nemesis, Mara the tempter. Mara is the demon who besieged the Buddha with doubts and fears the moment before his enlightenment, trying to distract him from his meditation with lascivious thoughts, arrows of fear, and the niggling question, “Who do you think you are?” The prince who would become the Buddha wasn’t immune from such thoughts…but he became the Buddha because he persevered in the face of his fears, touching earth to ground himself.

The Wall at Central Square

In his later years, Buddha went a step or two further, actually befriending Mara. According to one legend, Mara the tempter visited the Buddha late in life, after they’d each settled into their roles as Enlightened Teacher and Cosmic Distractor. Instead of rejecting Mara, Buddha asked him into his home for a cup of tea, and Mara complained he had grown tired of his job. “It’s so frustrating to be the bad guy who everyone hates,” Mara lamented. “It’s so tiring to be the good guy who everyone worships,” the Buddha countered, “with people constantly invoking your name and seeking your assistance and approval.”

The Wall at Central Square

After a pot of tea and conversation, Buddha made peace with Mara, the two of them deciding they weren’t that different, after all. Buddha, in fact, beseeched Mara to continue in his role as tempter, because without Mara the tempter, there could be no Buddha the teacher. Instead of enemies, Buddha and Mara are a kind of couple—a cosmic Good Cop, Bad Cop—who work together in tandem, each working off the other.

The Wall at Central Square

So who am I to think I could write a big, daunting project without sharing a cup of conversation with my own demons? Without fear, there can be no accomplishment, and as every gym-rat knows, without pain, there is no gain.

It’s important and helpful to count your blessings, but it can be fruitful, too, to count your fears. Buddha knew that he couldn’t hide or escape temptation; instead of even trying, he was wise enough to befriend his demons. Now that I know the things I’m afraid of when it comes to writing this current work-in-progress, there’s no reason not to write it. That is, after all, what I’m doing right now, with both the Buddha and a gaggle of demons looking on.

Art glass

Earlier this month, J and I went to two open-air art festivals: the Beacon Hill Art Walk at the beginning of the month, and the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival the following weekend. I’d been to the Beacon Hill Art Walk before–on previous visits, I primarily enjoyed the opportunity to explore hidden courtyards and alleys not typically open to the public—but J and I had never even heard of the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival even though it’s been around for more than 30 years.

Glass figure

“En plein air” is a French term that refers to the practice of painting outside in the open air, as a landscape artist with an easel might. Although the Beacon Hill Art Walk and Coolidge Corner Arts Festival featured a handful of landscape painters and photographers, there were also many glassblowers, potters, welders, and other artisans who typically ply their crafts inside. But even though many of the works J and I saw might have been created inside, they seemed to come into full bloom when displayed outside in the open air, where tents provided shade while encouraging the free circulation of both breezes and browsers.

Historical Society parking only

Another term that the French use for painting outdoors is “peinture sur le motif,” which translates as “painting on the ground.” I love this phrase for the simple image it creates of artists who are literally grounded, both their bodies and their easels rooting them to the scenes they capture. “Painting on the ground” pins you to a particular spot: instead of painting metaphorical castles in the sky, you paint whatever you see right here, right now, in this present place and time.

Booth after booth

Although J and I didn’t see anyone “painting on the ground” at either the Beacon Hill Art Walk or the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival this year, I’d like to think the artists we saw are metaphorically grounded: local artists and artisans proudly sharing their work with an appreciative community out in the open air.

Click here for more photos from this year’s Beacon Hill Art Walk and the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival. Enjoy!

The dragon's eyes

Here’s a confession: most of the time when I go to the Museum of Fine Arts, I wander without reading the placards that identify and explain each work. Instead, I eschew the edification of curatorial commentary and let my uneducated eyes lead me. What I’m looking for on these museum-rambles isn’t an art history lesson but something far more primal: I’m looking to feed my dreams.

Dragon and Clouds

I’m not a particularly imaginative person. Most of my waking hours are spent dealing with the-way-things-are, not envisioning the way-things-might-be. By night, I seldom dream anything memorable…and when I do remember my dreams, they tend to be filled with boring, mundane details, like yesterday’s laundry or tomorrow’s groceries. I’m the last person on the planet, in other words, who would dream of dragons: most of the time, I’m mired too deep in the daily drudgery.

Dragon and Clouds

A museum, however, is a stockpile of the strange. If your own imagination is starved, you can go to a museum and glut yourself on the fantasies of others. I’ve never dreamed of dragons, but Soga Shōhaku clearly has, his version of the legendary creature sprawling over eight painted panels that span some 35 feet. Shōhaku died in 1781, but the dragon of his dreams lives on, mesmerizing people like me who could never imagine such a creature on our own.

If you want to see Soga Shōhaku’s “Dragon and Clouds” yourself, it will remain on display at the Museum of Fine Arts until July 6th.

Quilts and Color

This weekend, I met Leslee and A (not her real initial) at the Museum of Fine Arts, where we saw “Quilts and Color,” an eye-popping exhibition of handmade quilts I’d been looking forward to all semester. What better way to celebrate the end of a long academic year than by admiring beautiful pieces of prolonged and meticulous handiwork?

Quilts and Color

Although I’m certainly not an expert when it comes to quilts and quilting, I’m definitely a fan. In 2009, A and I had seen an exhibit of quilts by the late Radka Donnell at the New England Quilt Museum, which I wrote about here, and before that, Leslee, A, and I had seen a juried exhibit of contemporary quilts at the American Textile History Museum, which I (unfortunately) never blogged.

Quilts and Color

When you look at a finished quilt, you see a Big Picture that was painstakingly assembled from bits and pieces. The contemporary art quilts Leslee, A, and I had previously seen featured irregular shapes, odd abstractions, and jarring color juxtapositions: all the aspects of modern painting, but on quilts. The pieces on display at the MFA, on the other hand, are more traditional in terms of composition, following block designs popularized by Amish, Mennonite, and other folk artisans, but they stun the senses with vibrant color combinations that at times seemed to vibrate with an almost hallucinogenic intensity.

Quilts and Color

Sewing a quilt is like running a marathon: it’s an accomplishment I admire with awe from afar. I know how to put one foot in front of the other, but I can’t imagine having the stamina to train for and then run a 26.2 mile race. Similarly, I know how to stitch two pieces of cloth together, but I can’t imaging having the patience to design, piece together, and then stitch the kind of intricate designs on exhibit at the MFA.

Quilts and Color

When I was younger, I enjoyed doing cross-stitch and other small sewing projects: there’s something soothing about the repetitive ritual of placing stitch after stitch. Because of this, I admire quilts as much for their meditative discipline as I do for their technical complexity. Making a quilt is a lot like writing a dissertation: you start with a blank canvas, then you fill things in gradually, one word or one stitch at a time. The end result seems impossible, but each step is doable.

Quilts and Color

Recently the Internet has been abuzz over a graduation speech given by Naval Admiral and former Navy SEAL William McRaven, who encouraged graduates from the University of Texas at Austin to make a habit of making their beds:

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

Quilts and Color

I might not have the patience or the diligence to complete a quilt, but I do manage to make my bed every morning. Instead of a quilt, J and I have a rust-colored bedspread that complements the light brown furniture in our bedroom and brings a pop of color to the room. And just as Admiral McRaven suggests, it gives me a small sense of accomplishment to start the day with a smoothly made bed.

Quilts and Color

Someday, it would be nice to have enough time to sew a quilt, or at least to try. In the meantime, I’ll content myself with the knowledge that I share the world with a Naval admiral who believes success starts with a neatly made bed and countless quilters who have made the world more beautiful, one stitch (and one bed) at a time.

Click here for more photos from “Quilts and Color,” which will remain on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through July 27th. Enjoy!

We Are Boston

On Sunday night, J and I took the T into Boston to see legendary tabla player Zakir Hussain and his “Masters of Percussion” perform at Symphony Hall. Before the concert, J and I had dinner at the Prudential Center, where gold and blue banners hung in honor of this month’s Marathon. “We are Boston,” several proclaimed, while others promoted the Twitter hashtag #LoveBoston.

We Are Boston

After dinner, J and I had time to browse on Boylston Street, then we made a pilgrimage to 298 Beacon Street, the site of last month’s fatal fire. It was a mild and bright evening, with the sun angling low toward the horizon, and it seemed like half the city was outside sitting on park benches, cycling, pushing baby strollers, or walking dogs. A steady stream of passersby stopped to quietly consider the sad, burnt-out building on Beacon Street where two firemen lost their lives, and a line of passing cars slowed in deference to the blue police barricades and gold “Caution” tape that surround the site.

After the fire

At Symphony Hall, we watched a parade of Indian families arrive and take their seats, women of all ages dressed in elegant silk saris and colorful shawls. There were several surges of latecomers held up in Boston’s notorious traffic, and Hussain worked this into his act, explaining how one song’s intricately layered rhythms were inspired by Indian traffic jams, with lumbering trucks weaving down the center of the street; smaller vehicles like carts and rickshaws zipping around the trucks; pedestrians impulsively darting in front of trucks, carts, and rickshaws; and stray dogs and cats milling everywhere, in blithe disregard of all these human comings and goings.

Waiting for his master's takeout order

The piece Hussain played while describing this scene moved in its own unpredictable and syncopated time, slowing down then speeding up in hypnotic bursts. This is how both our lives and commutes are, Hussain explained. So much rushing to pile into our cars, then so much waiting in traffic. What kind of unpredictable and syncopated commutes had the latecomers weathered on their way to Symphony Hall, followed by the wait to claim their tickets, followed by a frantic scurry into the hall and toward their seats, only to finally arrive, breathless and ready to listen?

Love Boston

After the concert as J and I wended our way out of Symphony Hall and toward the T, I was filled with a surge of gratitude for this, my adopted city. I’ve never been swept up in an Indian traffic jam, nor have I experienced the shouting conductors and lumbering buses of Lagos, which Teju Cole had described so vividly at Friday night’s reading. But because I live in a city where the likes of Zakir Hussain and Teju Cole pause in the course of their own syncopated journeys, I can glimpse the world right here from Boston, one of the many places where many roads intersect. “We are Boston,” those gold and blue banners proclaimed, and on Sunday night, it felt like loving Boston was one and the same as loving the whole wide world.

Resigning himself to the paparazzi

The last time I saw Teju Cole was in February, 2013, when he gave a talk at Boston College, and I used that talk as an excuse to show you a picture of his hands signing my copy of Open City. Last night, Teju was in Cambridge signing copies of his new book, Every Day Is For the Thief, and at that event I found myself taking yet more photos of Teju’s hands, signing.

Hands

I’ve always been fascinated by people’s hands, as they say so much about a person’s life and livelihood. As I type these words, for instance, I have a green inkblot on the ring-finger of my left hand: proof that I wrote in my journal today, my fountain pen coloring the callus where my pen rests. Being Italian, I find it impossible to talk without using my hands, and part of the appeal of going to a book signing is watching a writer use his: does he gesture when he talks? Are his fingers long or short? Is his handwriting emphatic and bold or languid and serene?

Pen in hand

I realize that most writers (myself included) do the majority of their writing on a computer keyboard, their words being typed rather than handwritten. Still, there is something oddly intimate about seeing a writer with pen in hand: an artist in action wielding the tool of his trade. I’ve known Teju Cole for years now, so I’ve seen him sign book after book: when it comes to book signings, you might say I’m an old hand. Regardless, it’s inspiring to see a writer touch a book born from his own hand: a tangible thing he imagined, brought into being, and now sends out to the world.

Click here to see more photos from Teju Cole’s book signing at the Harvard Book Store last night.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Last weekend, J and I took the T to Harvard Square, where we went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Although we each had been to the HMNH before, neither one of us had been there in years, and we’d never been there together. We each were overdue, in other words, for a return visit.

Fragile

The last time I went to the HMNH, I’d traveled from New Hampshire with a busload of college students on a field trip, but I abandoned the group as soon as we disembarked, exploring the museum (and writing a pair of blog posts) on my own. When J and I went to the HMNH last weekend, we retraced the route I’d taken on that previous trip, making a beeline for the glass flowers, an eye-popping collection of botanical specimens crafted from glass during the period between 1887 and 1936 by the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

Fragile

The Blaschkas were glassmakers in Dresden who were trained in the art of Bohemian glass making and ultimately found a niche creating amazingly lifelike glass models of invertebrates and plants that are showcased in natural history museums around the world. (The National Museum of Ireland’s natural history museum in Dublin, for instance, contains a collection of more than 500 Blaschka invertebrates.)

Fragile

In an era before plastic, the meticulously detailed plant models the Blaschkas crafted were a huge improvement over the wax and papier mache models botanists had previously relied upon to study plant anatomy. Because the glass flowers are intended as botanical teaching tools, they aren’t “just” flowers: one of the things that amazed me on this return trip to the HMNH was artistry with which the Blaschkas crafted entire plants out of glass. There are leaves of glass, stems of glass, and even tiny rootlets of glass. One case, for example, shows enormous glass bees pollinating enormous glass flowers…

Big bee

…while another case shows a cluster of disease-spotted apples and a branch of moldy apricots, a display designed to show the effects of plant diseases on fruit.

A few bad apples

A few bad apples might not be as pretty as the colorful vases and beads usually associated with Bohemian glassmaking, but understanding the effect that mold and blight can have on fruit crops is an important lesson for any budding botanist.

Rotten apricots

The Blaschkas were artists whose dedication to their craft is apparent in every glass model, but they also display the keen eyes of amateur scientists. Because the glass flowers are intended as botanical specimens, they need to be accurate, not just pretty.

Fragile

One of the things I love about the glass flowers is the way they bridge the realms of art and science. Flowers are inherently pretty, but there is something beautiful, too, about an anatomically accurate diagram of a living plant.

Fragile

The glass flowers are teaching tools, but they are also aesthetically amazing. The more you understand botany, the more you can appreciate the beauty of a well-designed flower, and the closer you examine a pretty posy, the more you appreciate the intricacies of design that hold that flower together. Because glass is a fragile but enduring medium, the Blaschkas left an enduring scientific and aesthetic legacy that continues to amaze and inspire.

Fragile

Click here for more photos from last weekend’s trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History: enjoy!

Reaching

When J and I went to Wellesley College to visit the greenhouse several weekends ago, we made a point to see Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker,” which has garnered lots of attention since he was unveiled outside the Davis Museum last month. I refer to the sleepwalker as a “him” rather than an “it” because this statue has acquired an almost-celebrity status after controversy erupted over his presence at the all-women’s college.

Asleep

Critics of Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” argue he should be installed inside (or removed from campus entirely) because the sight of an eerily realistic half-naked man looming with arms outstretched might be triggering to survivors of sexual assault. I’m no expert on the subject of post-traumatic stress, but I can say this much: Matelli’s sleepwalker is unbelievably creepy. When J and I set out on foot to find him, we had only a vague sense of where he might be located…but the second J spotted him, there was no mistaking him. Matelli’s statue doesn’t look like a statue: he looks like a man standing on the side of the road in his underwear. Had we not known the sleepwalker was a statue, I’m sure we would have veered around him, doing anything in our power to avoid the creepy half-naked guy on the other side of the street.

Wandering

But once you know the sleepwalker isn’t real, does he still seem threatening? Art is full of nude and semi-nude figures. Would Michelangelo’s “David” be frightening to survivors of sexual assault, given he’s entirely nude and armed with a slingshot? Few would suggest Michelangelo’s “David” isn’t art because he is gorgeous, and eye-pleasing nudes have long been considered worthy subjects for a sculptor’s attention. But a flabby, pale-skinned guy with a paunch calls into question our notion of “art” because his form is obviously not idealized. This isn’t an Adonis or even an Everyman; instead, it’s some random guy with a sleep disorder.

Posing

Imagining myself as an undergraduate walking back to my dorm after dark, I’m guessing I’d startle the first time I saw a statue like the sleepwalker looming near my path…but I’d probably grow used to him, realizing this half-naked guy doesn’t pose the same threat as other half-naked guys. Seeing Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” in the light of day on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I was struck by how vulnerable he looked. Perhaps I was swayed by the slushy puddle he was standing in, but instead of seeing him as a potential sexual predator, I couldn’t help but see him as a poor schlub who’s going to catch his death of cold if someone doesn’t cover him with a sweater or shirt.

Perchance to dream

Up close, Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” is alarmingly realistic. His skin is blotchy and prickled with goosebumps, and you can see the veins in his hands and the dirt under his fingernails. This verisimilitude is exactly what makes the sleepwalker creepy. Why would anyone in their right mind cast a statue that looks exactly like an average, ordinary person, and why would any college agree to display such a piece out in the open, right alongside a major campus thoroughfare?

Needs a manicure

“He looks like something from the morgue,” one man remarked after having pulled his car to the side of the road to take pictures. In the brief time we spent looking at this man-in-briefs, J and I saw a half-dozen onlookers in cars or on foot stop to investigate (and take photos of) the statue. Nobody seemed frightened by him, but many seemed to be bemused, taking the requisite cell-phone shots, with or without themselves posed for a selfie. Whether or not his presence is welcome at Wellesley, the sleepwalker has proven to be popular with sightseers, dog-walkers, passing pedestrians, and at least one blogger, all of whom want to stop, stare, and figure out what all the fuss is about.

J with sleepwalker

Sometimes in my literature classes, I pose the question “What is art,” and Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” silently asks the same question. Is art limited to depictions of pretty people or figures so stylized, we’d never mistake them for an actual person? Can art replicate in almost exact verisimilitude the pockmarks and imperfects of an actual person, or must art necessarily be idealized? In debating these questions with my students, we’d often decide that intentionality is key: if an artist is trying to make a statement, even a fire extinguisher hanging on a wall can be “art.” If you believe art is anything that invites discussion and debate, Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” has certainly achieved that aim.

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