For thousands of University of Wisconsin students and Wisconsin natives, Camp Randall Stadium is like a home. It’s a familiar place that manages to yield great experiences for nearly everyone, even football skeptics. There’s “Varsity,” tailgates on Lathrop Street, “Jump Around,” section O, Bucky’s push-ups, Mike Leckrone and that somehow always exciting part where the animated section letters race each other on the newly-installed, 170-foot-wide video screen. But there’s one thing that makes nearly everyone uncomfortable.
It’s the sculpture that looks kind of like a penis.
The looming, phallus-like piece of artwork hulks over the intersection of Regent Street and Breese Terrace. It’s 48-feet-tall and can be seen from blocks away. In the nine years since it was created, the sculpture has managed to raise thousands of eyebrows and sparked considerable controversy.
The man behind the phallus is Donald Lipski, a New York City-based sculptor who attended UW-Madison between 1965 and 1970. In his time at UW, Lipski was passionately involved in the anti-war movement. He took place in a protest on the UW campus against Dow Chemical Company, which was involved in the production of napalm for the Vietnam War. The protest ended in police officers breaking through the glass doors of the Commerce Building, hitting protestors with billy clubs, dispersing the crowd with tear gas and sending dozens of people to the hospital. In those same years at Picnic Point, he recalls “everyone was smoking pot, taking LSD, flying kites, blowing bubbles and bouncing babies on their knees.”
And the football team was terrible.
“Because of the militaristic nature of football, football wasn’t that popular during those years. It may have also been linked to the fact that there was just a horrible team,” Lipski said. “Being asked to make a sculpture for Camp Randall Stadium had a note of irony right from the start.”
Through a competition, Lipski was chosen as a finalist to make the sculpture in 2005. Lipski came up with two ideas for the sculpture. The first is the sculpture that currently stands, entitled “Nail’s Tales,” in honor of Lipski’s four-year UW roommate Eric “Nails” Nathan, who, to this day, provides Lipski with updates about the Badger football team. Lipski says he knows little about sports.
Lipski chose to make “Nail’s Tales” an obelisk because of the shape’s historical context. Ancient Egyptians frequently placed pairs of obelisks at the entrances of temples. Ancient Romans would frequently steal obelisks and use them as trophies or symbols of conquest. Because of these histories, Lipski thought “Nail’s Tales” would simultaneously act as an entrance to Camp Randall and as a symbol of power and strength.
The other sculpture proposed by Lipski was that of a tree that had folded over on itself to form a circle.
Barry Alvarez and Alan Fish — then associate vice chancellor for facilities — worked with Lipski to share their visions for the sculpture. They decided the proposed tree sculpture was too “feminine” to be displayed outside of a football stadium, Lipski said.
“What I got from them is something they really wanted was something that projected strength, power, virility — things that are not surprising to be associated with football,” Lipski said. “When they described what they wanted, they were all but making phallic gestures with their hands. They were, without saying it, saying that they wanted something phallic.”
So the two men and Lipski decided upon the obelisk.
“My understanding was that what Barry Alvarez wanted or didn’t want would be decisive,” Lipski said.
Lipski was wary of the masculine attributes the two men were looking for and looked for ways to soften the traditional obelisk shape. He imagined that the obelisk was made of stone and had eroded, revealing a pile of footballs beneath.
“I softened it up and gave it a little bit of a humorous attitude, and in some slight way, subverted the harshness and masculinity of a traditional obelisk,” he said.
After a year of planning and sculpting, “Nail’s Tales” was erected in November 2005. In the years since, the piece has drawn considerable controversy from Madison residents and resulted in numerous columns decrying it and even calling for it to be destroyed.
Lipski is aware of the controversy surrounding the sculpture and has two theories as to why it’s spoken of with such disdain. First, he said the feelings toward the sculpture could have to do with feelings toward the football program itself and its “macho and dominant” nature at UW. Second, he said people might rather see a statue of Crazy Legs or Bucky Badger — something more UW-themed.
“This could be defense or rationalization,” he said. “Out of all the pieces I’ve made in a public space, it’s the only one that’s drawn considerable controversy.”
No matter the reason, the sculpture will always look like a penis. In this world, that’s enough to make a lot of people uncomfortable. But, ultimately, it’s what Barry Alvarez wanted. And when Barry Alvarez wants something, you give it to him.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Eric “Nails” Nathan was Lipski’s roommate for four years, not just freshman year. The story has also been changed to reflect the full events that transpired at the Commerce Building during the protest against Dow Chemical Company.