Leslie Wilcox: Arboreal Attire


Location: On the grounds of the Jason Russell House, 7 Jason Street, Arlington. On view through November 2020

The Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture and the Arlington Historical Society have collaborated to bring contemporary art by the accomplished Boston sculptor Leslie Wilcox to the grounds of the historic Jason Russell House. Wilcox has selected six of her distinctive steel mesh sculptural “garments” – developed over the last 20 years – to create an evocative installation for the Jason Russell House entitled Arboreal Attire.


Inspired by fashions of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wilcox embodies the people who may have passed through the grounds of this historic family residence, built more than 270 years ago in the  1740s. At the same time, she seeks to reveal the idiosyncratic character of six individual trees. Wilcox’s sculpture aims to capture a hybrid presence,  part human and part force of nature.  Memories of the past and the qualities of historic fashion unite with the shapes and spirits of the trees themselves to bring a diverse cast of characters to a forested space.

Wilcox’s sculptures look delicate, even ephemeral. In reality her gowns and jackets are tailored from tough, durable stainless steel mesh. Her Arlington installation required weeks of demanding work, hoisting pieces of translucent metal up into each tree, wrapping and draping the sculptural garments around massive trunks, and carefully stapling seams into place, ensuring that the trees were not harmed in the process.


Boston-based Wilcox studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts on scholarship after graduating from Kent State University, OH.  Her recent work can be seen regularly at Boston Sculptors Gallery, MA, and has been shown at Chesterwood (Stockbridge, MA), Kunstverein Tiergarden (Berlin, Germany), Boston College McMullen Museum of Art, Brandeis University (Waltham, MA), UMASS Lowell (MA), and Fuller Museum (Brockton, MA).  She has completed many public and private commissions for both indoor and outdoor venues and has work included in major collections such as Fidelity Investments, deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum (Lincoln, MA), Boston Public Library, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as well as Brandeis, Simmons, and Harvard Universities (MA).  Reviews of her work appear often in regional and national periodicals.  For more information visit www.lesliewilcox.com.

BARKMOORE (with Artist)

Stainless steel screen, lacquer paint, 2015

Shaped like the early Victorian over-frock coat, the Chesterfield Coat, named after the mid-eighteenth century 6th Earl of Chesterfield, was typically made of heavy woolens lined with fur, and with a larger cut overall to accommodate men’s suits worn underneath as well as various “concealments.”


Stainless steel screen, lacquer paint, 2013

Originally an ancient ceremonial robe embellished with the family crest, the T-shaped silken garment celebrates the needle arts tradition and transcends borders, traveling from Asia to Western Europe and on to the American colonies by the eighteenth century.


Galvanized steel screen, lacquer paint, 2010

With its voluminous leg-o-mutton sleeves and box-pleated skirt, the popular farthingale-skirted dress began in 1500’s European societies. With conventional modifications it entered into North American culture around 1820.


Galvanized steel screen, lacquer paint, 2000

Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny’s influence entered American society by the early 1900s, providing simplicity, elegance and inspired methods in utilizing imported Asian silks and beads. With his wife Henriette Negrin (a dressmaker) he added inspiration to the burgeoning needle arts tradition and provided yet another multicultural trade route. Their instantly recognizable “Delphos” pleated gowns were worn by some of the world’s most glamorous women from their invention in 1907 into the 1950s.


Stainless steel screen, lacquer paint, 2005

Traditionally constructed of rough waterproof canvas, the Asian Manchu Riding Coat of the 1600s was adapted into the European Macintosh, a full- length coat with large patch pockets and a wide collar. In the 1770s, its popularity spread in North America as excellent protective outerwear for inclement and unpredictable weather. It is seen today at equestrian events worldwide.


Stainless steel screen, lacquer paint, 2013

The top coat of the British Regency era (late 1700s) became the American colonist’s trimmed-down, rolled collar outer coat, made from dark woolens and often worn with a felt top hat for both business and pleasure. Beaver hats or cocked hats first appeared in London in the 1790s; they were known to frighten timid people, while children screamed and dogs yelped! The American colonist’s pared-down top hat – with narrow brim and low crown – still allowed ample room to tuck important papers and notes inside.


Established in 1897, the Arlington Historical Society is dedicated to preserving the Jason Russell House and the Society’s collections, and to discovering and sharing information about Arlington’s history.  The stories of individuals, families and events associated with the town are interpreted in the Society’s collections, programs, and Smith Museum exhibitions. MORE INFORMATION about Arlington Historical Society can be found here.


Doris Birmingham, a member of the Arlington Historical Society, explains how this exhibition helps the Society fulfill one of its goals: bringing history to life for the community and out-of-town visitors alike. “The casual sidewalk stroller may be a little taken aback at seeing the trunks of several grand old maples on the grounds encased in larger than life-size wire mesh costumes, for example, an evening gown, an overcoat and top hat; even a Japanese kimono,” Birmingham said. “Transparent, clinging to their tree trunks but shimmering slightly in the wind, they are mysterious presences, possibly suggesting the ghosts of prior residents of the house and their neighbors.”

Birmingham sees a story unfolding in the gathering of characters that Wilcox has created: “The group of four nearest Mass. Ave. might be engaged in conversation at an elegant lawn party; the two across the lawn, latecomers to the party, approach from Jason Street, eager to join in.”

Make Yourself at Home

Beside the thoroughfare: white pines, stone wall,
an acre empty except for your breathing.
Once forest, once orchard, now field,
this thin grass takes your steps.
How many hoofprints has it held?
How many moccasins? Or even trees—
see how one leans toward you, graceful in pleated sleeves;
one wears snow like wings on a kimono;
one stands silent, blackclad, hat in hand.
Old quince, maple, oak…  Still,
today floods in on you: the sixth mass extinction,
the way plants sing through their roots,
how monarch flights splinter down years…
You lean against fieldstone, and feel
the breaths of others, seen, unseen. The trees
keep reaching. They look down the road
beyond you, to the children coming, and call out
their greetings in a thousand tongues.
What if you are not alone?
What if you were never alone?

—Jessie Brown


Poet Jessie Brown and her dog, Ruby, stopped by frequently to admire the work. Lively conversation ensued, and Wilcox shared that she had enjoyed collaborating with poets for past exhibitions. ACAC’s curator Cecily Miller asked Brown if she would write a poem based on Arboreal Attire and its unique site, a family residence built in the 1740s. The result is “Make Yourself at Home,” a provocative meditation on time and history, art and nature. Brown’s poem explores the sense of mysterious presence that Wilcox’s sculpture has introduced into the small but sylvan space of the historic house’s front yard.

How did Brown experience the process?

“I’ve always loved the Jason Russell house, not only for its history, but for the green space it provides for the whole neighborhood. It gives a wonderful kind of breathing room: pines, a colonial herb garden, rabbits scampering across the lawn—with the #77 bus churning right past, and the shops across the street. People love to stroll by or just sit on the benches. I walk through nearly every day, and was thrilled to come across Leslie Wilcox’s sculptures. Different figures went up over several weeks, as if the grounds were being repopulated, slowly, from different eras.  Her installation sneaks up on you: is that a tree? a coat? a person? Do they know each other? Where are they going? The process fascinated me. It made me imagine all those who’ve been here before us; I couldn’t stop thinking about them. The poem, “Make Yourself at Home,” grew out of that excitement. Not only the people, not only the creatures, but even the trees, the plants, the very ground we stand on here, may be speaking. It holds a history that connects us.”

Jessie Brown is the author of two short collections: What We Don’t Know We Know (Finishing Line Press) and Lucky (Anabiosis Press).  Her poems and translations have appeared in numerous local and national journals, including venues like The Comstock Review, New Madrid, Minerva Rising, Full Bleed, and the American Poetry Review.  An Arlington resident, she leads poetry workshops both independently and in schools and communities throughout the Boston area (www.JessieBrown.net ).