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Statue of sleep-walking man triggers controversy at Wellesley College

Wellesley College sophmore Allie Mathews took a photo with a statue of a sleepwalking man.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

WELLESLEY — A sleep-walking man clad solely in his underwear is a bit startling to encounter on the campus of a women’s college. Even if he’s just made of bronze and paint.

Double-takes and debate have abounded this week at Wellesley College, where a lifelike statue of a somnambulant male was installed outdoors as part of a new exhibit at the Davis Museum.

Hundreds of outraged students have signed a petition asking administrators to remove it.

The artist, however, is thrilled. “I was talking with the curator of the exhibition and my assistant this morning, and we were saying, ‘When was the last time a work of art was talked about so much and got so much attention?’ ” sculptor Tony Matelli said Wednesday, after news of the debate rocketed around the Internet. “I can’t remember when.”


The statue — titled “Sleepwalker” — is part of Matelli’s solo show “New Gravity,” featuring sculptures that explore how objects can be reversed, upended, or atomized. But shortly after it appeared Monday near the center of campus, a group of students began a petition on Change.org asking college president H. Kim Bottomly to have “Sleepwalker” 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.

“While it may appear humorous, or thought-provoking to some, it has already become a source of undue stress for many Wellesley College students.”

At the college Tuesday, drivers could be seen slamming on their brakes as they approached or passed the statue, craning their necks for a second look. Many students made a 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 who signed the petition, said she felt “freaked out” the first time she saw the statue, thinking for a moment that a real, nearly nude person was lingering near the campus center.

Others said that 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.”

On Wednesday, Bottomly released a joint statement with Davis Museum director Lisa Fischman, noting the installation has served its purpose — to evoke response.

The sculpture “has started an impassioned conversation about art, gender, sexuality, and individual experience, both on campus and on social media,” the statement said. “The very best works of art have the power to stimulate deeply personal emotions and to provoke unexpected new ideas, and this sculpture is no exception.”

Matelli, who will be on campus Thursday night to speak at the exhibit’s official opening, said he thinks criticism of the “Sleepwalker” is unfounded.

“Everyone brings to a work of art their own interpretation, their own history and their own baggage,” he said.

“I think people might be seeing things in that work that just aren’t there.”


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