John Roach

John Roach's parting words to Nails' Tales

Donald Lipski's Nails' Tales is going away

They have taken action. After guarding the western gateway to the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus and Camp Randall for 14 years, Nails' Tales is going away. The powers that be have decided to remove Donald Lipski's statue after its gig overlooking Badger football Saturdays.

Before Lipski's sculpture is packed up and carted away, let us ponder the work and artist.

Lipski and I have some things in common. He grew up in Highland Park, Illinois. I lived there for a few years during a Chicago work stint. Lipski taught at the famous Cranbrook Academy and I performed there as a struggling, mediocre singer. Most importantly, both Donald and I attended UW–Madison during the Vietnam War era.

By any measure Lipski is a skilled and acclaimed artist. Although he said he designed Nails' Tales as an Egyptian obelisk eroding into a pile of footballs "stretching up to the sky," this columnist has been critical of the piece since it was installed. The reason is simple. Lipski and I don't see the Camp Randall experience the same way.

Lipski created a football phallus, as if game day in Madison is all about testosterone, big-time college athletics and, given Lipski's time here, the military industrial complex. The work is wry in its most benign interpretation, or a cynical middle finger aimed at the Saturday culture in its more aggressive take. This is understandable given that Lipski attended Wisconsin when Badgers football was awful and incidental to bigger things happening to young American men and the people of Vietnam.

But here's the rub. To my mind Nails' Tales failed because it portrayed Badgers football Saturdays as comically grotesque masculinity rather than what it is at its heart: a celebration of community.

Let's make that case. If Saturdays at Camp Randall are all about testosterone, how do you explain friends reuniting, folks parking on lawns, the Portage Plumber in drag, old couples on a Saturday date they have kept for decades, throwing extra points out of the stadium, passing bodies, "Sweet Caroline," "O Sucks," "Jump Around" and the Fifth Quarter, which celebrates both male and female musicians in raucous unison. All of these rituals have occurred regardless of the outcome of any given home football game. 

Oh, and the current head coach grew up five blocks from the stadium and his dad coached at a high school in town. How's that for community?

To put a finer point on it, game days in Madison are unique because Badgers fans show up and have fun regardless of the final score. For nearly 20 years we have ranked among the highest in attendance. Yet, unlike at most of those other packed stadiums, we've never won a national championship.

Why the turnout? Because we just like being together at Camp Randall while the aroma of bratwurst floats through the autumn air and young guys perform with grace and strength. And we like to jump en masse to a song that manages to combine bagpipes and hip-hop. 

Lipski's work missed because it is one dimensional, and Camp Randall game days aren't.

Now Lipski has been respectfully informed that the campus is going to move in another direction. The bureaucracy has treated Lipski with respect by communicating with him regarding his sculpture's fate. Good for them. Good for him.

But now, it's time to answer the big question: What should replace Nails' Tales? What can be created that would last longer than a handful of years? What icon would stand for community and endure the test of time?

Should it be a work that harkens back to the stadium's earliest roots as a Civil War campground? A big "W," powerful in all its simplicity? A larger version of the artful Bucky just created for the Alumni Plaza at the Memorial Union? 

Or should we opt for functionality over art and build a women's restroom as penance for all the years there weren't enough of them?

Either way, and despite the controversy, we would do well to consider Lipski's work not as a legitimate interpretation of Madison game days, but a cautionary note lest we lose perspective that it is just a game, the participants are young and we are here to have fun.

If we fail to remember those things then we'd have to admit that the joke was on us, and that Donald Lipski was right all along.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com. 


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