But not this time. Atlanta magazine did not let Grant get away with slipping them his penis. Here's what happened: They'd commissioned the image of one of his Sister Louisa pieces to appear in the next issue, and he provided a glorious example covered in all kinds of trinkets and cha-cha for which Sister Louisa's become notorious, and they liked it, they said. Only maybe they said that before they got a good look at it, because when Grant returned to retrieve the art after its photo session, the little plastic penis once glued to the frame was, you know, gone. "I can't believe they just took it," he laughs. That's right, Atlanta magazine took Grant's penis, and the taking of it is not even the worst part. The worst part is they didn't give it back.
"Maybe it broke off," I offer, but we both know that's not true. There were plenty of pieces on that particular Sister Louisa artwork that could have broken off a lot easier than the penis. Take the Jesus with a machine gun for an arm, or any of the crack lighters, for that matter. No, the penis was a surgical removal. Who are we kidding?
"I have to get it back," Grant says. "I mean, it's part of the piece. It's part of the artist's vision." His voice is light, but I can tell he's resolute. Believe me, I know Grant, and you don't want to fuck with his vision. I remember back before Sister Louisa emerged, Grant used to collect those plywood signs nailed up along the highway painted by backwoods evangelists. "Hell Hurts," and "Repent Immediately," they read. He also collected paint-by-numbers pieces depicting the Last Supper and other religious scenes that he picked up at yard sales or along the side of the road.
Back then, he used to sell used furniture from a space he shared with a coffee house in East Atlanta, but once he started including this stuff in his inventory, they ran him out of there like angry villagers. I thought it was funny, because all he had to do was stop stocking his space with the art and he could have kept his lucrative venture going. It seemed simple enough to me.
"Hell no," he told me at the time. "They can't tell me what to put in my store." 'Course his store happened to be on their property, but I guess that was beside the point.
Grant moved his store down the street, where he got his own space with his own walls and door and everything. That's where he started selling the Sister Louisa pieces. For example, take a paint-by-numbers piece depicting Jesus riding through Jerusalem on a donkey -- an adolescent probably slavishly completed it 40 years ago or something. She would find that on the side of the road and the next thing you know, it was in Grant's store, only now there were words painted right there on the canvas, coming out of the donkey's mouth. The words were, "Who is this Jesus and why is he on my back?" Another favorite was the vintage velvet Last Supper, upon which Sister Louisa had augmented Jesus' thoughts into words: "Everyone who wants in the picture get on this side of the table!" This is why today the missing penis is so ironic, because as an artist, Sister Louisa got her start by making an art out of fucking with other artists' vision.
But then she grew like all artists do. She ran out of other people's art to add upon and started creating her own from scratch. She'd take a weathered piece of plywood and paint on it, "Nothin' Harder Than a Preacher's Dick," and nail that next to the other evangelical stuff alongside the highway. And then one day, she started in with the assemblages, covering everything with crack lighters and glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary keychain charms and whatnot, maybe a little plastic penis here and there. For a while she showed up at art festivals, once with a collection of trashcan lids. They were dubbed "Rapture Shields" based on the premise that you were gonna need one of these in case you were left behind to face the snakes of Armageddon after the second coming.
So Sister Louisa has taken on many forms over the years, but know this: She has always -- always -- had a penis, and now it's missing. "Have you seen my penis laying around there in your offices anywhere?" she wrote Atlanta magazine. "It is small and pink and was siliconed to the frame on the bottom left-hand corner between the right hand of Jesus and the purple crack lighter. If you are holding my penis hostage, please slide it in an envelope and send it back to my home so we can become reattached."
Hollis Gillespie's commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered." To hear the latest, go to Moodswing at atlanta.creativeloafing.com. And look for her new book, Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood (Regan Books/HarperCollins) due out March 2.
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