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Statue of man in underwear causes stir at Wellesley College

A statue of a sleepwalking man in his underwear was installed on the Wellesley College campus on Monday.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A statue of a sleepwalking man in his underwear on the Wellesley College campus.

A realistic-looking statue of a man sleepwalking in his underwear near the center of Wellesley College has created a stir among the women on campus, especially as more than 100 students at the all-women’s college signed a petition asking administrators to remove it.

The statue, called Sleepwalker, is part of an art exhibit featuring sculptor Tony Matelli at the college’s Davis Museum. The exhibit, New Gravity, features sculptures that are often reversed, upended or atomized.

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However, the statue of the sleepwalker -- which is hard to miss in a high-traffic area by both pedestrians and drivers near the campus center -- has caused outrage among some students in just one day after its Feb. 3 installation. Zoe Magid, a Wellesley College junior majoring in political science, started a petition on Change.org with other students asking college president H. Kim Bottomly to have the statue removed.

”[T]his highly lifelike sculpture has, within just a few hours of its outdoor installation, become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for many members of our campus community,” says the petition, which was penned by student Lauren Walsh. “While it may appear humorous, or thought-provoking to some, it has already become a source of undue stress for many Wellesley College students, the majority of whom live, study, and work in this space.”

Davis Museum director Lisa Fischman wrote on Wellesley College’s official website that the sculpture was meant to evoke response.

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”We placed the Sleepwalker on the roadside just beyond the Davis to connect the exhibition -- within the museum -- to the campus world beyond,” Fischman wrote, also posting it on Change.org as her response to the petition. “I love the idea of art escaping the museum and muddling the line between what we expect to be inside (art) and what we expect to be outside (life).”

Fischman noted that reactions on campus have been “varied,” and even wrote that she has heard that some find the statue “troubling.” However, she noted that the sculpture’s whole intent was to start discussion.

”As the best art does, Tony Matelli’s work provokes dialogue, and discourse is at the core of education,” she wrote.

However, Magid said over the phone Tuesday that Fischman’s response failed to address students’ concerns.

”We were really disappointed that she seemed to articulate that she was glad it was starting discussion, but didn’t respond to the fact that it’s making students on campus feel unsafe, which is not appropriate,” Magid said. “We really feel that if a piece of art makes students feel unsafe, that steps over a line.”

At the college on Tuesday, many drivers could be seen slamming on their brakes as they approached or passed the statue, craning their necks for a second look. Many students were seen making a casual beeline for the new addition on campus -- some smiled and laughed as they got closer; others frowned and seemed apprehensive. All reached for their smartphones to take a photo.

”I honestly didn’t even want to get too close to him,” said Laura Mayron, a Wellesley College sophomore. “It honestly makes me a little uncomfortable with how real he looks. It’s odd.”

Bridget Schreiner, a Wellesley freshman, said Tuesday afternoon that she had already signed the Change.org petition that was posted late Monday night.

Schreiner said she felt “freaked out” the first time she saw the statue, thinking for a moment that a real, nearly naked person was lingering near the campus center.

“This could be a trigger for students who have experienced sexual assault,” she said.

Others said while the statue came as a surprise, they understood the artist’s intention.

“I find it disturbing, but in a good way,” said Sarah Wall-Randell, an English professor at Wellesley. “I think it’s meant to be off-putting – it’s a schlumpy guy in underpants in an all-women environment.”

Wellesley College senior Annie Wang, an art history major, said she acknowledged that the statue forced passers-by to contemplate the very nature of art.

However, she said she wished to see the statue moved out of such a public space.

“I think art’s intention is to confront, but not assault, and people can see this as assaulting,” Wang said. “Wellesley is a place where we’re supposed to feel safe. I think place and a context matters, and I don’t think this is the place to put it.”

Matelli is slated to appear on campus next week at a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is one of four films the college is showing this semester to complement his exhibit. Matelli is expected to speak after the screening on Feb. 12. The event begins at 6 p.m. at the Collins Cinema.

Tony Matelli: New Gravitywill 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.

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