Artwork by Delavan-Darien graduate hits the big time, causes controversy

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Marcia Nelesen
Wednesday, February 12, 2014

As an artist, you might know you've arrived in the national consciousness when your work appears on The Weather Channel.

But even 1989 Delavan-Darien High School graduate and artist Tony Matelli is a bit surprised at the controversy his “Sleepwalker” statue has generated.

The work is a hyper-realistic sculpture of a mostly naked man clad in underwear. The man's eyes are closed and arms outstretched as he appears to shuffle in the snow on the Wellesley College campus in Massachusetts. The bronze statue is part of Matelli's larger exhibit inside.

Some of the women at the all-female college asked that the sculpture be removed because it made them uncomfortable and worry about sexual assault.

“Sculpture in snow freaks people out!” The Weather Channel's online headline read.

Matelli said he's surprised by the reaction and hopes the art doesn't get lost in the distraction.

“That got blown out of proportion so quickly,” he said.

He's just glad people are noticing and talking about art, Matelli said in a telephone interview as he rode a train to Boston for a lecture he was giving about his art show.

Matelli's high school art, photography and video teacher, Tony Vidas, discovered Tuesday his former student was behind “Sleepwalker.”

“So, that's his,” Vidas said, noting he had seen the image on The Weather Channel. “Good for him. What's the controversy?”

Matelli, 42, graduated from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and then from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. He still shows artwork at the Green Gallery in Milwaukee. His mom, Gloria, and his sister still live in Delavan.

Matelli lives in New York City and supports himself with his art. Much of his work is realistic sculptures in a variety of mediums. But rather than a sculptor, he prefers to simply be called an artist.

His subjects range from a piece of rope to monkeys violently attacking each other to a dandelion so realistic it appears as if its seeds might suddenly blow away. The projects are so involved he hires a team of workers to help

Matelli said his inspiration comes mostly from his daily life.

“Sleepwalker,” for example, was born of his sometimes frustration with everyday life, he said.

Matelli and the Wellesley curator placed two of his sculptures, “Sleepwalker” and a dog, outside the exhibit hall. “Sleepwalker” is visible from one of the floors in his exhibit.

“It's a great way to break the inside/outdoor barrier,” Matelli said. “It's nice when artwork seems to have escaped the museum.”

Another sculpture made of silicone, “Josh,” hovers just above the floor.

“I just wanted to make a sculpture about a person who has no gravity, no weight, so he has kind of become untethered to the world. He's in a different environment on a different planet.”

Matelli said he uses chimps to talk about human issues without representing actual people.

Vidas said he wasn't surprised to learn his former student had become a well-known artist, recalling the young man had high energy, creativity, drive and an understanding that it takes hard work to be successful in art.

Vidas, who retired in 2007, chuckled and said he also wasn't surprised Matelli's work is the subject of some controversy. Vidas recalled how Matelli modeled for a friend's photo series titled “A day in the life of a boy and his guitar.” One of the photos showed Matelli's naked backside as he got in the shower with a guitar.

Vidas was asked to take the photos down, but a compromise was reached when the photo was edited with a piece of black construction paper. The artist included a statement on the censorship.

Vidas thought it was a great learning experience that including dealing with the politics of art.

Vidas recalled Matelli painting mostly colorful abstracts in high school.

“Boy, these are really good,” Vidas said, viewing images of Matelli's work online. “This is just really interesting stuff. He's gotta be influenced by Duane Hanson,” Vidas said

Hanson's lifelike janitor statue is displayed at the Milwaukee Art Institute.

“He's really doing all right,” Vidas said about Matelli.

“One of the unsung benefits of teaching, especially in creative fields like art, is when your ex-students have success. That means you have success.

“He probably doesn't even remember his old art teacher,” Vidas said.

Not so, Matelli said.

“He was a big influence on me,” Matelli said of Vidas.

“He was an art lover, you could tell. He had a great way of teaching art.”

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