Outdoor Sculpture Unleashes Power in Exhibit at Wellesley College

TONY MATELLI: New Gravity at the Davis Museum, February 6 – July 20, 2014  

Lured by curiosity about controversial art on campus, I wouldn’t wait for better weather. That seemed so for other visitors too. The lively atmosphere and the great guidance of a Wellesley graduate increased my urge to share the fun and fascination of  a recent snowy Saturday. I’ve formed three questions to focus within the overwhelming possibilities. 

What do “Stray Dog” and “Sleepwalker” have in common?

  • BothStray Dog” and “Sleepwalker” are bronze life-size sculpture painted in realistic colors, so on first or second glance they look like living beings. Even close up, clues such as the surface shine and body’s stillness are subtle and intuitive. Before you touch them, you can marvel at the lifelike visual details.
  • Both were created by artist Tony Matelli, whose website includes fascinating scenes from his studio process.
  • They are the only two pieces outdoors on the Wellesley College campus as part of a major show, TONY MATELLI: New Gravity with two full floors inside Wellesley’s Davis Museum.
  • Matelli has described both characters as uncomfortably adrift, missing some essential connection or stabilizing purpose.  He has emphasized their sense of need and loss.

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The slide show from our first few minutes with “Sleepwalker”  relates to the next question:

How are “Stray Dog” and “Sleepwalker” different?

  • Differences between the two for the current exhibit are their location, placement, and visibility on campus.
  • “Sleepwalker” is very near the on-campus intersection of roads next to the Davis Museum. You can hardly miss it if you are on your way to the museum, or even if you are not. When it was first placed there in early February, student reaction at this women’s college was not completely positive.  Some woman expressed alarm at the persistent presence of a man in underpants with arms outstretched. To them, his stance suggested sexual assault, triggering fears, nightmares or upsetting memories. For this and other reasons, concerned students started an online petition addressed to the college president and the museum director with their request that the sculpture be moved out of the public area and into the museum. Very quickly, the petition acquired hundreds of signatures; almost as quickly the issues and image sparked much media attention, for example commentary on Greater Boston and news coverage in the New York Times.
  • The museum director Lisa Fischman responded to the petition. She  defended the importance of placing the sculpture outdoors, near the museum,where visitors can view it from a window in the gallery that displays related works of the artist. Fischman developed her points in writing about “Sleepwalker.”  Interviewed for Boston.com,  Tony Matelli explained his rationale for outdoor placement in relation to key themes, such as disorienation and dislocation, in his work. He stressed  his own intentions to convey the sleepwalker’s vulnerability, in contrast to predatory male behavior.

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  • Unlike “Sleepwalker”, “Stray Dog” is fairly far from the museum. It is low down to the right of the Clapp Library steps as you approach. Not obviously out of place, it could be a small, unusually patient pet sniffing the ground. From its stance and harness, this seeing-eye dog seems ready to serve, hoping to help a human in need. More appealing and  less controversial than the human, this sculpture offers rewarding balance to  the human figure and possibly for visitors who go out of their way to find the dog.  
  • While the man is hard to miss, the dog is easy to miss, though not hard to find if you head for the Clapp Library.

How do the two outdoor sculptures relate to the indoor exhibit?

  • To me the two outdoor sculptures extend themes of New Gravity and reveal the significance of outdoor space in Matelli’s work.
  • Comments on the extensive, compelling exhibit of Matelli’s art inside the museum are beyond my scope (given the limits I have set for my blog and the length of any one post). Here are links to valuable resources, including alluring visuals: Wellesley bulletin description of the exhibit and Sebastian Smee’s tribute in the Boston Globe.
  • Anyone who can go to the Wellesley campus should allow time to explore the two floors full of Matelli’s art indoors, as well as the two  outdoor sculptures!

Matelli’s art in these downstairs galleries will be gone after May 11, but his art upstairs will remain through July 20.

Updates with Enlightening  Inside Information from Wellesley

Fellow deCordova  guide Jennifer Starr, whose daughter is  a Wellesley student, sent me the following links, which extended my perspective and understanding of  issues generated by the placement of Matelli’s work on campus.  I am adding them here, with a brief note for each.

This USA Today collegiate report will give more background about the variety of student responses , including a twitter account with humorous images.

This is a cogent, dramatic, and enlightening opinion piece from co-editor in chief of the Wellesley News.

This Boston Magazine article includes a photo of the statue in costume and some statements by Tony Matelli about how students have responded to his art.

Additional updates, thanks to Jennifer Starr: 

Wall Street Journal commentary, Fear and Loathing at Wellesley by Lenore Skenazy and response letter from Wellesley President Kim Bottomly

Jennifer’s dog meeting Tony Matelli’s Stray Dog

Real dog meets sculpted service dog

Real dog meets sculpted service dog


Visitors view "Sleepwalker" statue at Tony Matelli:New Gravity exhibit at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College

Visitors view “Sleepwalker” statue in Tony Matelli:New Gravity exhibit at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College


  1. Paula Phipps · · Reply

    Don’t they need each other? While sleepwalking the man is vulnerable because he is effectively blind.


    1. Thanks, Paula! Yes, I think Tony Matelli says something like that in one of the recent interviews, Feb. 6, Boston.com., to quote:
      “Yes, he’s not the only lost figure – there is also a stray dog, which is also painted bronze. It’s a seeing eye dog, so conceivably, these two were once together. The seeing eye dog is walking somewhere else, on the other side of campus, but it’s rendered in the same way; the aesthetic looks similarly fashioned. The thing about the seeing eye dog is its owner is not there – that brings to mind a whole other set of questions.”


  2. Loved your post! I felt I was right there with you in the snow. Your slideshow added a lot — it revealed some wonderful expressions of onlookers. I liked your questions, too. And your links. Thanks! Sharon


  3. I love your comments, Sharon! Your points help me know what is working visually and verbally. Thank you!


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