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Clockwise from left: Seipel and friend Blake Huff with the stock car Seipel built for Southside Speedway’s Enduro Races in the 1990s; Seipel doing a glass demonstration at the University of Wisconsin in Wausau in 1969; Seipel’s From the Parthenon shown at Pleiades Gallery in New York City in 1989. Photos courtesy Joe Seipel
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VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art will be located at the corner of West Broad and Belvidere streets. image courtesy VCU
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Seipel in the halls of the School of Arts building. Jay Paul photo
Nearly everybody recalls that one moment. A door opens or closes, changing life's course forever.
In the case of Joe Seipel, now dean of Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Arts, that moment came wild-eyed and "knee-walking drunk" through an open basement window of the University of Wisconsin's art department in the mid-1960s.
Seipel, then a promising junior majoring in ceramics, was not the person entering through the window. Not that Seipel — a good Wisconsinite in every sense — was averse to imbibing the state's semiofficial drink. But on this day, the ambitious undergraduate was deeply involved in honing his skills as an artist.
"Let's put it this way, I was making very big ceramic things," says Seipel, the affable and unpretentious heart of VCU's top-ranked and internationally recognized art school. "Like almost human-scale kind of things — you know, 5 or 6 feet, which is big in ceramics."
He describes his younger self as a big kid with a growing ego who already had made his mark on campus with his art. His work was so unusual that "when visiting artists would come, they would always make sure I got to meet them, and I thought I was kind of big stuff and doing OK."
Enter Bruce Breckenridge.
Seipel's mentor at the university, Breckenridge was a ceramicist and a close associate of Peter Voulkos, who made his academic home at the University of California, Berkeley, and whose large-scale works Seipel emulated.
"I wanted to go to UC-Berkeley to graduate school and work with Peter Voulkos," he says. But that day, as Breckenridge came through the window, "he sees what I'm doing — I'm sitting on the floor working — he stepped on everything I had and broke it."
Seipel was stunned and said nothing, watching in shock as his mentor destroyed his work: "And then he walked past me and he went, ‘Berkeley, huh?' And he roared with laughter."
As if that wasn't enough, Breckenridge stumbled away only to stagger back for a second shot at his wounded protégé. "He said, ‘Get the hell out of my class. You don't come back here until you get some damn ideas.' "
Seipel was heartbroken, but today he rates that moment as "the most important thing that ever happened to me as a student."
For two weeks, Seipel essentially dropped out of school and life, spending his time furiously sketching, seeking the "damn ideas" his professor said he lacked.
"I went back with a stack of drawings, and I walked in his office," Seipel says. His professor shuffled through them, muttering occasional approvals before leading his student out of the ceramics department and upstairs to the sculpture department. "And he gave me to another faculty member. That's how I became a sculptor.
"You think about your career and you think about the serendipity of it all," Seipel muses. "If I think back and think about one thing that could have changed, and my whole career would have been different."
CU's School of the Arts building blends into the university's uninteresting architectural march down Broad Street toward downtown.
Tonight, a crisp but pleasant February night, young art students in paint-spattered clothes mix with a very different crowd trickling into the building from Broad Street. Well-turned-out guests make their way down a long corridor toward the building's graduate sculpture studio suites. CultureWorks, the city's arts-booster organization, is holding its annual meet-and-greet for major donors, and these well-dressed, middle-aged visitors have come to hear Seipel talk about a project — a moment — that may well be life-altering for Richmond's entire downtown.
That moment will arrive some time in 2015 at the southwest corner of Broad and Belvidere — currently dominated by neon-lit gas stations and surface parking lots — thanks to VCU's recently announced plans to at last build its long-discussed Institute for Contemporary Art. The ICA, designed by acclaimed architect Steven Holl, is planned as a world-class contemporary gallery aimed to further thrust VCU's art program into the national and international spotlight.
It's only fitting that the ICA's construction, expected to become a major gateway landmark for the city's nascent arts district and for VCU, is being led by a man whose impact on the Richmond arts and culture over the past 30-plus years has been equally transformational.
Like the VCU Arts building's deceptively nondescript façade, Seipel is a man whose plain exterior belies his monumental contributions. Tall and with the sturdy build of someone whose Germanic forebears knew a thing or two about working the soil, he's the sort of person who doesn't stand out in a crowd even if he typically towers over it.
With a beer firmly in hand, the 6-foot-3-inch-tall Seipel cuts a wake of small talk and pleasantries through the CultureWorks gathering, towering over potential donors. Even in a dark suit, he evokes the rugged build of a Midwesterner common in Milwaukee beer pubs. His smiling eyes crinkle, greeting guests against a backdrop of light jazz and heavy hors d'oeuvres.
Seipel's easy charm obscures the daunting task facing him. VCU enticed him to return in March 2011, after a brief stint at the Savannah College of Art and Design, in part because the university's new president, Michael Rao, had expressed interest in reviving plans to build the ICA.
"It's going to be a building of incredible significance," Seipel says during his presentation for CultureWorks, clicking through a series of stunning slides that show the building as a collection of graceful angles with surfaces of backlit opacity and iridescent blue-green weathered zinc. He calls the location — bridging VCU and the arts district — an "intersection of torsion."
His audience watches, the silence occasionally broken by gasps at renderings of the building, contrasted against the intersection's current streetscape.
"It will change the city's landscape," Seipel promises.
Seipel has already made his mark on the city's cultural landscape. At a youthful 64, he serves as a representative of everything new and modern about the VCU School of the Arts, but he also serves as a bridge to its humble beginnings.
"Joe set up the bones of this incredibly wonderful sculpture department," says Amy Hauft, who ducks away from the CultureWorks event and takes cover near one of her graduate students' studios. Hauft has chaired VCU's sculpture department for the past eight years. She is diminutive in stature compared to her predecessor in the post, but she's proven — metaphorically at least — that she's got the feet to fill his shoes.
She credits Seipel's efforts to recruit top-notch teachers who not only teach, but who also make world-class art. That effort has attracted students and faculty to the school who've won dozens of significant grants and awards, including Guggenheim Fellowships and MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grants. Hauft ticks through a litany of rising artists who've come through the program: Tara Donovan graduated in 2009, Teresita Fernandez in 1992 and Diana Al-Hadid in 2005.
Student Alina Tenser won a recent Dedalus Foundation Fellowship, a highly competitive prize among artists. Petite, with an unpretentious way of making her thick tortoiseshell glasses and secondhand sweater look stylishly chic, Tenser follows a long list of artists using VCU's graduate sculpture program, ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News & World Report, to explore groundbreaking ideas and create art that catches notice far beyond Richmond.
Seipel's encouragement of the artist's natural curiosity, Tenser says, is a big part of why VCU provides such a fertile environment. "This is our space," she says, appreciative of the program's ability to foster new ideas. She smiles. "Plenty of toxic activities go on here."
Fittingly, one of Seipel's first public presentations about the planned ICA was at 1708 Gallery before the city's arts community. That presentation was, in some ways, a homecoming. Seipel co-founded 1708 Gallery in 1978, laying a big part of the foundation for the city's popular arts district and its collection of galleries and restaurants along Broad Street.
Emily Smith, 1708's current executive director, speaks with muted excitement for the ICA project, and the certain changes in store on Broad, and to the nonprofit 1708 Gallery's mission. That mission currently is substantially the same as the ICA: to exhibit emerging and established contemporary artists and their art.
"That's our mission, so we want to see the conversation about contemporary art continue," Smith says, expecting 1708 to evolve in order to remain relevant to the discussion that it helped start. Seipel remains a donor member at 1708, but Smith hopes his biggest donation is the ICA.
"Making that connection literally and physically through that building is important," she says, seeing the ICA, like Seipel himself, as a bridge between the arts district and the art school. "It ties to that side of Belvidere, being VCU, but it also gives a nod to this side with the design."
Seipel first arrived in Richmond in 1974, following jobs that ranged from bartender to a crewmember for cult filmmaker John Waters. The University of Wisconsin graduate also pulled a stint as an adjunct faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Rinehart School of Sculpture after receiving his MFA there.
Al Calderaro was a young teaching assistant at VCU when Seipel came to town. A multimedia artist and undergraduate in the nascent sculpture department, Calderaro sat on the selection committee (he was "in the room," as he describes his role) that considered Seipel's application.
That application certainly stood apart. It came with an attached portrait of Seipel wearing bib overalls that was autographed: Joseph "Joe" Seipel.
He remembers Seipel's art as looming large, like the artist's own personality. "It's humorous, and it has this Bunyan-esque quality about the figures."
Calderaro, who owns Gallery A in Shockoe Slip, expresses no surprise at his one-time peer's success: "He's one of those rare people who's a sincere and honest person and he's also likable. Academic politics are fierce — he's been able to survive that without becoming a politician."
Seipel has touched the Richmond community in ways rare — perhaps unknown — among artist educators.
In 1982, he and two friends founded the Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe, a dimly lit watering hole where Fan District regulars bellied up until its much-lamented 1999 closure. The owners, Seipel recalls, bore nicknames befitting their non-business-minded approach: Emotional, Irascible and Irresponsible. "I was Irresponsible."
Apparently that moniker didn't deter others from seeking Seipel as a partner, in business or life.
"I don't know if you know this, but I helped start a bank," he says, a mirthful grin parting his neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. River City Bank, founded in 2003, merged in 2008 with the still-existing Village Bank.
"I brought a whole different way of thinking to the bank board," says Seipel, who held a variety of board committee positions, including chairman of the budget committee. "I'm not sure it was always received as well as it should have been, but everybody had different ideas."
Seipel met his wife of 27 years, Suzanne, at Seipel's Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe, and though it wasn't love at first sight, she says it was hard to ignore the cafe's mix of gritty ambiance and friendly fraternization. "It definitely was the place to be," she says. "It played a big part in many romances." The couple's daughter, Chloe, 21, recently graduated from James Madison University.
Whenever he ventures outside of art or academia, Seipel says, he always brings his sensibility as an artist. When you start something, he says, it often doesn't turn out exactly as you planned: "You try things and see what happens."
That's been a long-running theme in Seipel's career: Trying something out and seeing what happens. Another often-concurrent theme is his seemingly insatiable interest in interdisciplinary collaboration with peers in the sciences.
"I think that if there's something that gnaws at me a lot, it's making people in other fields understand how important that creative mind is," he says, citing Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind. "In it, he calls the MFA the new MBA. What he's talking about there is how important the creative mind is now to everything that we do."
By way of example, he points to a sculpture currently hidden away in his own studio — a large piece that was Seipel's first experimentation with robotics.
"I wanted to do that, but I didn't really know how to do it. So I said, ‘Well, I'll just offer a class in it and then I'll have to learn how to do it,' " he says. Again, his "try it and see what happens" approach led to new things. He recruited two professors from VCU's engineering department to co-teach the class (all three taught it for free), and they managed to enroll 16 students, eight each from the sculpture and engineering departments.
"We gave them these assignments: Do a piece of sculpture that has four moving parts and mimics animals' movements," he says. Seipel recalls "amazing" critiquing sessions. "So the engineers — they would make something, build something, and, let's say, it didn't work quite right. The sculptors would say, ‘Wow, look at that. It moves weird. Let's do something with that.' And the engineers would say, ‘No, it's supposed to go this way.' "
Soon, the sculptors' willingness to look at problems not as problems, but as opportunities began to rub off. "There was no right and wrong. It made them crazy to begin with, but by the time the semester was over, you almost couldn't tell the difference between them. It was really something."
The ICA again offers opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, Seipel says. In his speech at 1708, he stresses this.
"One of the things that made me feel good about coming back to VCU is it's an art school with a comprehensive university," he says, hoping to see art-science collaborations develop and to be displayed at the ICA through such programs as the soon-to-be-unveiled VCU Center for Health Care in the Arts. "That's why we call [the ICA] an institute. It will be a place where things are created — where exciting things are taking place."
There is little in Seipel's early upbringing that might have suggested a career as an artist and educator.
Growing up in Spring Valley, Wisconsin, a town of 50, Seipel's humble family roots were made more humble by early tragedy.
"My dad died when I was 11," says Seipel. "He was killed in a truck accident, so we were really poor. I mean really poor. My mother was a cleaning lady at a hospital."
That poverty continued through high school, where he was one of 400 students.
"When I went away to school, I would borrow money for school and I would send it back to her, and then I would work 40 hours a week to get through school," says Seipel, who first attended junior college at the University of Wisconsin, Manitowoc County Center.
Even before college, Seipel says, he already knew he wanted to pursue a career — or at least a life — in art.
"I thought, ‘Perfect! All the money you could possibly want!' " he says, aware that his early career path wasn't necessarily a lucrative one.
In fact, Seipel attributes his later success to serendipitous events and meetings that all led up to that day when Breckenridge, his university mentor, came stumbling in to shatter his ceramics and his dreams.
"I was really lucky," he says, speculating that it was being "really poor" that led him to his junior college's work-study program. "Because I was there, I got this young faculty member named Doug Baldwin who'd just come from the Brooklyn Museum School [where he] had a Max Beckman Scholarship — he showed up at the Manitowoc County Center in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, as the head of the art department — well, the art department because he was the only teacher."
Baldwin was there in part because of his friend, Doug Grimm, "who had the best collection of contemporary art slides in the country." It was Seipel's job to help Grimm set up the school's slide library, spending his days filing slides and learning "who the artist was and what they did."
Arriving at University of Wisconsin in Madison, Seipel was a walking encyclopedia of contemporary art.
His time in junior college also introduced him to life far beyond Manitowoc County's borders.
"Doug took me to New York," he says, recalling visits to the Cedar Tavern, a Greenwich Village haunt made famous as a hangout for prominent abstract artists and writers — Kerouac and Jackson Pollack both were at points banned from the place — where the subjects of those slides came to life. "I hung out with these crazy people — these crazy artists in New York — and I said, ‘You know, I like this stuff.' "
Grimm was a ceramicist, and at first so was Seipel.
"That was really exciting for me," he says, recalling learning to leave behind his paper and ink drawings and to think "in three dimensions."
Seipel's need to think and create in three dimensions helped lead him back to VCU after a very short stint as vice president for academic services at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga.
"It's a very different school," says Seipel, who speculates that the college's leaders hoped he could help migrate some of VCU's success in attaining top national rankings. "I think that, to put it kindly, we had a difference of opinion about [how to improve the school] — and I can sometimes embarrass myself with my optimism."
But to say Seipel is glad to be back at VCU promoting the ICA is an understatement in direct proportion to the design planned for the ICA building.
"If Richmond was stock, I'd buy it right now," Seipel gushes. "Because, this place, I've never felt it like this before, and I've been here a long time."
"There are these creative communities that are around Richmond," he says, judging by the number and quality of local coffee houses and the creative people they attract. "We're talking about Shockoe Bottom, we're talking about the advertising sector down Main Street and what's happening on Broad Street. Plant Zero [in Manchester], even North Side. There's stuff happening. All of a sudden there's … all of this stuff, it's just bubbling. You want to buy stock in a place that's just moving up."
John Bryan, president of CultureWorks, thinks some of that increase in stock price might be attributable directly to the efforts ongoing at VCU's art school, now led by Seipel.
Last year's CultureWorks fundraiser was held at Dogtown Dance Theatre in Manchester, where Bryan says, the point was to expose major donors to "cutting-edge performing arts" that included performances by a drag queen and a belly dancer. This year, he felt compelled to bring donors closer to the city's "cutting-edge visual arts at the No. 1 sculpture school in the country."
Bryan says the ICA, Seipel and VCU's art school are what's happening right now on Broad Street.
"I hope they can raise the money as quick as possible," Bryan says. "And I know if anyone can, Joe's the one to do it."
And when it's done, there seems little doubt among Seipel's fans that the ICA will add to a piece of art Seipel started sculpting sometime around 1974.
In his own art, Seipel seems to have something of a fascination with scale.
Which is why Myron Helfgott, another contemporary of Seipel's who served among a string of acting sculpture department chairs that followed Seipel's wake, says that his colleague's love for creating large works and for effecting significant change on the geography around him has never paused. In fact, by Helfgott's figuring, Seipel's work has only gotten larger and larger — until now it's so big it's become easy to overlook.
Today, Helfgott says, VCU's art school has become Seipel's ever-evolving masterwork, one that he says the art school dean sees as the ultimate collaboration, in which the artist's natural pride takes a back seat to his joy at witnessing the success of the students and faculty.
"As long as I've known Joe, since 1974, if the sculpture department was doing well, he would take it as a personal fulfillment," says Helfgott. "Now, as the whole art school is doing well, he is personally fulfilled by the school doing well. The thing is, I don't know if he needs anymore to depend on his own work — his ego just doesn't need that."