blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1

VCU Sculpture: The Formative Years

The sculpture department at Virginia Commonwealth University is a noisy, vital place, with a famous MFA program and a teeming population of undergraduate majors. With its hallmark insistence on making as a form of thinking, it is a studio-intensive program where students and faculty alike push the definitions of craft, medium, process, history, content, and critique in a rigorous effort to create what sculptor Lester Van Winkle called, “things we’ve never seen before,” and what the writer Toni Morrison once called, “a coherent sphere of enunciation.”

Its origins date back to 1928, when Theresa Pollak established an art department in what was then an amalgam of professional education courses in Richmond, affiliated with the College of William and Mary. Later this fledgling program would be renamed the Richmond Professional Institute. In the GI Bill years after World War II, RPI flourished, and so did sculpture under artist-teachers Wolfgang Behl and Charles Renick, star student of Theresa Pollak. Renick’s teaching and leadership would span thirty-two years, and include the hiring of Harold North, who took over as chair of sculpture in 1968, the year RPI and the Medical College of Virginia joined forces to become an independent state university named for the Virginia Commonwealth. In the next three years Renick and North, having already hired José Puig, brought in Myron Helfgott, Charles Henry, and Lester Van Winkle. Joe Seipel joined the faculty in 1974, and Connie Brown arrived as department secretary in 1976. The program moved into a former car dealership on Broad Street where run-down former showrooms and an upstairs maze of offices (full of the presiding ghosts of car salesmen) would combine with the liberation politics of the ’70s to create an atmosphere of remarkable competitive and intellectual momentum. The department gained an underground reputation for its marathon critiques—and its marathon parties. Renick, who served a second stint as chair in the four years before he retired in 1985, always said “everyone who walks through this door is welcome.” He set the tone for a close-knit faculty of sculptors who became legendary not only for their fighting edge as artists, but for their generosity as colleagues and teachers. This faculty, and VCU’s dirt-cheap tuition, attracted a growing number of superb students. And those students attracted more students, from all over the U.S. and beyond.

On April 15, 2011, Harold North, Myron Helfgott, Chuck Henry, Lester Van Winkle, Joe Seipel, and Connie Brown sat down in front of a crowd of students in the VCU Sculpture Department for a conversation about the great early years of the program, how it started, and how it grew. With images and stories of Charles Renick and José Puig, the talk ranged from matter to mind, studio to late-night critique, ethics to aesthetics, the inherent messiness of sculpture, famous pranks and parties, and what defines an art school. With the savvy help of Joseph Kuttenkuler, Daniel Brazda, and Thomas Gresham of the VCU Communications and Public Relations Office, we captured the hour-and-a-half conversation on camera.

The event itself was originally conceived as an all-star guest panel to take place on the first day of the spring 2011 semester, for a new course we were introducing, called “A Sculptor’s History of Sculpture.” Having offered to teach the course in its first iteration, my plan had been to launch it with a microhistory of the department itself when I suddenly thought, “What if we could have all the faculty and staff who made this place famous come in, sit around a table in front of the class, and tell the story in their own voices?” In the end it took most of that semester just to find a single day when everyone could show up, not least Joe Seipel, Provost at Savannah College of Art and Design at the time. Just as the term started, we learned that Joe would return to VCU in March as our new dean of the School of the Arts, a most convenient development for the panel. Lester was in Texas, then Spain, not to arrive in Richmond until early April. Harold, Myron, Chuck Henry, and Connie—everyone but Joe retired from the university and busy with work and travel—agreed to a date on Lester’s return.

Starting with Harold, each of the six spoke for a few minutes by way of introduction, while we projected images of their work on a nearby screen. Once the conversation was off and running, we rolled vintage shots of the old shops and buildings, archival excerpts from a 16 mm film montage made in the department in late 1960s, and images of student works both old and new. Later, editing the video in post-production, Dan Brazda reinserted the images at full resolution for better quality. The conversation itself is uncut, save a few coughs and sneezes. In the audience are junior and senior sculpture majors, graduate students, current department faculty, chair Amy Hauft, and other honorable visitors.

The finished video, “VCU Sculpture: The Formative Years,” focuses on the legacy of the department as it took form and came into its own in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s. One day we’ll assemble another panel to take up the story from 1985, with the fifteen-year span of Joe Seipel’s chairmanship, the addition of new faculty members and staff, and “extended media” added to our name. VCU’s graduate program in sculpture was ranked first in the country by U.S. News & World Report in March of 2003. Please see Blackbird’s “Links” section to visit the current website for the Department of Sculpture and Extended Media.

Since we released the edited video in January of 2012, Harold North discovered, at last, the names of the filmmakers who produced the marvelous 16 mm film about the department in the late 1960s, which we found in our archives and excerpted in the video: Kent and Bonnie Hiner. Our retrospective and everlasting thanks to them for the time machine of their attention.  

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