Published November 2, 2005

What's so special about the penis?
Okemos sculptor explores taboo subject with new exhibit

Carla Kucinski

When it comes to penises, Sue Long has plenty to say. The Okemos artist has devoted the last two years to sculpting male genitalia -- big and small, circumcised and uncircumcised, young and old, red, black, brown, blue -- a collection of 106 penises that make up Long's first major solo exhibition, "The Penis Project."

The show is not a tribute to the penis nor is it a show about sex or nudity. It's Long's vehicle for fueling a dialogue about the exploitation of women's bodies in film and media.

"Why is it you rarely ever see men? It's always been this constant bombardment of women in a sexual way," she said. "It undermines your womanhood.

"I'm not trying to be a man basher, 'cause I'm not. The show is a social commentary. It's really about women."

The concept of "The Penis Project" began a few years ago when her mentor and clay instructor, Williamston artist Mark Chatterley, asked Long to set a goal for herself. As a multimedia artist, Long has shown her work in group exhibitions but has always wanted to open a solo exhibition. In order to do that Long needed a large volume of work and, at the advice of Chatterley, a subject that's edgy, controversial and original.

The decision to focus on the penis came to Long while watching "Last Tango in Paris" with her husband Ralph. The film made her question why the female body was fully exposed while Marlon Brando remained sheathed, even during sex scenes. "There: I have my subject matter," Long thought. "I'm going to expose the penis."

The idea excited, but also scared Long.

"It's a very taboo subject," she said. "I was a little freaked out about it at first. I don't think women are exposed to penises as much. It's kind of uncomfortable."

She proceeded with caution, molding penises but adding faces to them to disguise the fact that they were in fact penises. She even donned capes on some of them to ease her discomfort. Over time, she cultivated a new relationship with her subject and started to have fun with it. She tossed the capes, got a little braver and began to build penises with personality. Injecting a little humor, she thought, would make people more receptive to hearing her message.

"It opens the door a bit," she said. "This just has to do with exposing the penis in a way that could be talked about. When things are hidden, they have power. Unveiling the penis takes away that power."

At Long's house, penises are everywhere. Cluttering the bedroom floor, standing erect on bookshelves, sticking out of potted plants, sprinkled throughout her back yard. Everywhere you turn, a penis is staring at you. There's no avoiding it. It's a little jarring at first, perhaps a bit uncomfortable, but Long isn't tired of looking at them just yet.

"Actually, no, they're kind of like snowflakes; every single one of them is different," she said. "Somehow these guys ended up with personalities."

And so began a series within a series. As Long stood in the center of a sea of male genitalia in her home, she pointed to the different types of penises she's molded.

"We call these the little garden gnomes," she says pointing to a pale-skinned yard sculpture with stubby legs and a penis, only. "They're just so darn cute."

There's also the "Penisauris" - a penis and dinosaur hybrid, a humorous take on men's "slow, lumbering inability to change attitudes about equality for women," Long said. The d---head series - a detachable penis on a torso - was a pun Long said was too appropriate to pass up. And the Trophy series -- penises mounted like trophies on walls, which Long says plays on the idea of male penis pride.

"Men take their penises way too seriously," she said.

As the day of the opening quickly approaches, Long feels some trepidation and excitement. So far, she's been surprised by the reactions of friends, neighbors and family who've seen the works in progress and have applauded her for her wit and social commentary.

"It will be really interesting to see how the general public reacts to it," she said. "I hope people find some humor in it and at the same time see the seriousness in it."


Copyright 2005 Lansing State Journal