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.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

A greenhouse is a portal to another place or time. Entering the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College last weekend, J and I traveled across space to the tropics and across time to an eventual spring. A greenhouse is a magic box that contains its own world, its own climate, and its own sense of time: a self-contained universe that remains separate and apart.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

While many folks fly to warmer climes in the cold months, J and I typically don’t travel in the winter. We visit family in the summer, when my teaching load is lighter and the weather is more predictable: the only thing worse than weathering a New England winter is being stuck in an airport en route to Elsewhere. When you don’t travel during the winter, you become practiced in the art of hunkering down, cultivating your own inner fire while enjoying quick adventures close to home during the brief daylight hours: nothing that would keep you out in the cold for long, your own warm hearth being your final destination.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

“Traveling a great deal in Concord” is how Thoreau described his own practice of home-centered excursion, his afternoon walks beginning and ending at the very writing desk where he’d record them in his journal. When you travel a great deal in your own neighborhood, your consciousness grows like a taproot, delving deep into the familiar and mundane. You become a connoisseur of the Here and Now, cultivating patience like a hidden bulb that will bear fruit only in due course, after many storms and much suffering.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Last weekend at the Wellesley College greenhouses, J and I repeatedly crossed paths with several photographers toting long-lensed cameras, tripods, and complicated flashes. “It’s like spring in here,” one of these photographers enthused as he followed us into a room filled with potted tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. We later saw a van for a photography club on a field trip, and I can’t think of a better destination than a glass house that contains flora from around the world. A greenhouse, after all, is the opposite of snow globe. Instead of containing a tiny scene perpetually a-swirl in white, a greenhouse traps the sun’s own heat under glass, a sun-globe that refracts and magnifies all the color and warmth of an undying summer.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Click here for more photos from last weekend’s trip to the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College: enjoy!

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Today J and I are planning to go to the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College, which we visited almost exactly two years ago. Two years ago, we’d had a mild and relatively snow-free winter, so March found me starved for greenery more than warmth. This year, it’s been cold and we’ve had plenty of snow, so I’m starved for any color that isn’t white or gray.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Hothouse flowers have a bad rap for being high-maintenance: what kind of plants need a sheltered and climate-controlled environment to thrive? But after months of being pent-up in my own hot house, I’m looking forward to visiting a tropical pocket where both my glasses and my camera lens will fog with warmth and humidity. Thank goodness, in other words, for hothouse flowers. I don’t know how we’d get through another interminable New England winter without them.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

This weekend, J and I visited the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College, which I’d blogged years ago. Although this winter has been mild and almost entirely snow-free, I’m tired of looking at the bare, brown ground. February and March are months when I’m typically starved for color, so I thought visiting a well-tended greenhouse would serve as a virtual trip to the tropics.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

When I first suggested J and I visit the Wellesley greenhouses, I pictured myself taking endless macro shots of flowers as I do every year when the first blossoms appear. Instead, however, what drew my eye time and again this weekend was the sight of greenery.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

I’m tired, as I said, of looking at the bare, brown ground, and I long for a season when the grass is lush and green rather than dry and yellow. As J and I wandered from one warm and humid room to another, it was the sight of green leaves that repeatedly attracted my eye. Colorful flowers are wonderful, but it’s chlorophyll I crave.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

When you wander a greenhouse with your heart tuned toward green, you’ll discover how richly diverse the wide verdant world is. Green comes in many shades and shapes, and each appeals in its own fashion.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

In due time, the bare New England earth will itself erupt in fresh foliage. But for the time being, I’ve stockpiled a cache of images I’ll hold in my heart: both a reminder and a promise of greener days.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

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