It’s extremely rare to hear a statue speak, unless that statue happens to be Cady Vishniac, Dorchester’s living statue, who occasionally breaks her silence to play her harmonica or to discourse about her unusual life’s work.
The 24-year-old Ashmont resident supports herself entirely by pursuing the centuries-old art form of standing motionless for hours made up as a statue, a tradition that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Tableaux vivants (“living pictures” in French) were a popular form that could be adapted to everything ranging from pious interludes at a medieval Mass to erotic entertainment in music halls during the 19th century. Even as recently as last month, Shaquille O’Neal sat without moving for an hour on a Harvard Square bench, swarmed by mostly male fans who wanted to have their picture taken embracing the newest Celtic.
At 19, Vishniac got into “busking” or street-performing, but when she set her hair aflame working as a fire-eater, a friend introduced her to this less perilous alternative.
“I have been a human statue on and off for about five years now,” Vishniac says. “I’m a little soft-spoken and awkward in person, and mentioning my profession at parties makes people mistake me for someone much more interesting than myself. But with a job like mine, being boring might be the best way to stay sane. I’m proud that I’ve remained grounded despite the nonstop curiosity of strangers.”
You may have spotted Vishniac covered in metallic make up as a witch at last month’s Dorchester Open Studios. Previous other recent neighborhood appearances include ones at the Irish Heritage Festival in Adams Village, at the Dorchester Day parade even at local birthday parties.
Her work has taken her as far afield as Florida, but lately she’s been taking her still-life act to Provincetown in the summer. Sitting or standing stock-still at the prime location at the corner of Commercial and Ryder streets in P-town, Vishniac each season appears as a different character, like Rosie the Riveter or a hobo that plays her harmonica when tipped.
In fact it was at that busy intersection that Vishniac became embroiled in a squabble with another street performer that landed her on the front page of the Boston Globe – and in federal court.
The Globe began its report, noting “It is a dispute made in kitsch culture heaven: a mime versus an Elvis impersonator.”
For Vishniac the incident was anything but amusing. At her regular spot on July 12, 2009, she was accosted by Raymond Sitar, a 67-year-old retired Connecticut lawyer who decided her time was up and demanded she make way for his Elvis tribute act. Vishniac contends that among other behavior intended to break her concentration and divert tippers to himself, Sitar “snuck up on me while I was working and grabbed my rear end.’’
Accusations and counter accusations kept escalating, with Sitar getting arrested. The former attorney countered with a lawsuit for $100,000 in damages, alleging “libel, slander, and malicious prosecution.”
Today Vishniac tells the Reporter, “So far it’s cost me ten thousand which I don’t think I’ll get back. It’s so sad to me that the courts allow people with law degrees to use the system to do this to people, but I’ve learned a lot from the experience. At first I was crying a lot and having nightmares about spending the rest of my life trying to pay it off or going bankrupt. Now I just focus on my work and my book.”
The book to which she refers is her projected scholarly study of human statues and related art forms, a pursuit that does more than keep her mind off how she could pay $100,000 on a statue’s salary.
She observes, “Within the mind of a successful living statue lies a surprising amount of technical knowledge concerning crowd control, costuming, and makeup, a vast store of experience. It isn’t at all surprising that a statue should write in depth about statues – what’s surprising is that none has done it yet.
“My mission in my research has been largely to preserve for posterity information about the performance art that has been the overriding passion of my adult life, one with which much of European culture has been obsessed for many centuries. I’d like to do justice to the living statue by giving it a history and a context. The end product is not meant to be a definitive study of all things statue by any means, but rather a tentative first step. I’m not the usual kind of scholar – I’ve dropped out of school three times. It’s likely that I won’t get everything right, but I invite people to patch up the holes in my account and build off of my work.”
Meanwhile, look for an even newer statue than the “Sleeping Moon” at the Peabody Square tree lighting ceremony or at Downtown Crossing/Boston Common during the holiday season. Loads of pictures and information about living statues at her website cadyvishniac.com.