Art Matters: The Lesson of 'Sleepwalker'

The author and a friend cozy up to Tony Mantelli's statue the - The author and a friend cozy up to Tony Mantelli's statue the "Sleepwalker," which is on display at Wellesley College through the spring.

My kids know that I’m an Elvis fan.

And now, you know too.

But I didn’t come by this appreciation following formative years spent listening to my parents’ albums or hearing them wax nostalgic about the King of Rock and Roll.
No, my fandom flame was lit via a lark.

A friend and I went to Memphis two years after uttering the fateful, off-the-cuff words, “We should go to Graceland,” after seeing the Jim Jarmusch movie “Mystery Train” in which Elvis and his mansion figure prominently.

That is how we both found ourselves standing, along with the rest of our tour group, in Meditation Garden, the final resting place of Elvis Aaron Presley; his mom, Gladys; his dad, Vernon; and his grandmother, Minnie Mae. This was the culmination of our tour of Graceland, our tour of Elvis’s tour bus, his personal airplane, the Elvis Up Close Museum, Elvis’s car museum, and Sun Studio, where Elvis made his first recordings.

Over the course of our stay we learned, among other things, that Elvis loved his mother, served his country, shopped local, was a loyal friend and was a philanthropic benefactor to the city of Memphis. Sure he had some faults but since that trip I’ve decided to overlook them in favor of his good qualities. It’s like they say, “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.”

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The reaction I had to visiting Graceland 20-plus years ago was the same one I experienced last week on the campus of Wellesley College while viewing Tony Mantelli’s statue, “Sleepwalker,” which is on display as part of Mr. Mantelli’s show “New Gravity.”

“Sleepwalker” is a life-size and astonishingly lifelike fiberglass sculpture of a man, unclothed except for his skivvies, arms outstretched, caught in the act of sleepwalking.
He stands, not next to the entrance to the Davis Museum, which houses the rest of the “New Gravity” exhibit, but near the road in a grassy area of the campus opposite the sidewalk. Visitors have to cross the road to get a close-up look of the statue and cross they do. People walk up and cars pull over or just stop in the middle of the road to look at the statue.

We visited during spring break and, with the exception of the museum and “Sleepwalker, the campus was deserted.

The statue caused a stir when it was installed in February with upset students petitioning for its removal. It continues to draw visitors and the 600 people who attended the opening when Mr. Mantelli was on hand to speak about his work was one of the largest crowds the museum had ever seen.

And so, like proper gawkers, I teamed up with a friend and we went to see what all the fuss was about.

The “Sleepwalker” has all the hallmarks that make a good “it’s clever but is it art?” conversation.
The “Sleepwalker” is no Adonis; rather, he’s an ordinary middle-aged schlub, bald, with a paunch. He’s so ordinary he’s pathetic, especially out there, hapless and wandering. Once you get over the awkwardness, the main emotion he inspired was sympathy.

Half of Mr. Mantelli’s exhibit inside the Davis is up on the museum’s fifth floor and from one room an oversized window looks out on “Sleepwalker.” It’s fascinating to stand and watch the public interact with “Sleepwalker.” Students, joggers, families with young children, dog walkers, and museum-goers all come by and react to the statue by taking selfies, photos of the statue alone and group photos with the statue in the middle like the guest of honor at a party. People reach out apprehensively to touch the statue, others give it a friendly hug. One woman pretended to hand the sleep walking man a cup of coffee, another put their sunglasses on him for a photo (okay, that was me).

The only negative reaction we saw was that of a Boston terrier who was more than a little alarmed by the statue. The small dog tugged on his leash until the owner finally gave up the battle. As they crossed the road the small dog looked back—once, twice, three times.

If the purpose of the statue was to create something for the public to interact with then Mr. Mantelli has more than succeeded.

Art that engages. Now that’s art.

And though I probably won’t hang a poster of him over my work desk (it would compete with my framed poster of Elvis), I came to appreciate “Sleepwalker” for more than its initial shock value.

Now there’s a lesson here about taking a chance on something and seeing where it leads you. But I won’t be presumptuous enough to point out the obvious.

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