The researcher | Arts and culture | Weekly style
It’s impossible to talk about sculpting at VCU without talking about Joe Seipel.
From a one-year contract in 1974 that turned into a permanent position, to become head of the Sculpture Department in 1985, Seipel became senior associate dean and director of graduate studies for the entire school.
After a stint at Savannah College of Art and Design as Vice President of Academic Services, he returned to Richmond to become VCUarts Dean. After five years as dean, he retired and returned to his studio, only to be lured to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City as acting dean of the School of Art and Design for six months. Back in his studio, he was asked to act as interim director of the new Institute of Contemporary Art, which he did for a year. Since 2019, Seipel has been a full-time artist.
The result of having plenty of time to devote to creating art is behind two new Seipel exhibitions opening this weekend. The Reynolds Gallery will host “Altered Visions”, a series of multimedia pieces that began life as photographs before being transformed into three-dimensional objects. “Classical Opera”, a sculptural installation with a conceptual basis in ancient Greek tragedy, debuts in the artist’s own studio in the Fan.
Seipel credits his background in sculpture to American bricks, a precursor to Legos, which as a child he combined with Lincoln Logs and an erector to build cities that stretched throughout his family’s home. High school introduced him to clay sculpture, which led to serious exploration of ceramics in college.
Style Weekly: So how did you go from ceramics to sculpture?
Joe Seipel: After transferring to UW Madison, I had a wonderful teacher named Bruce Breckenridge. He watched my studio progress and one night, when I was working late in the ceramics studio, he crawled out the English basement window, quite laden and wobbly from his evening at the 602 Club, and deliberately stomped and broke some of my work. .
Then he laughed at me because I thought I could go to UC Berkeley for graduate school and told me to get my ass out of the ceramic studio and not come back until to have ideas that belong to me. After two weeks away from my other classes, introspection, frantic drawing and trying to figure out who I was and how my art needed to be more personal and honest, I brought her a stack of 2 inch drawings .
He looked at them, grabbed my arm, took me to the sculpture studio, and told the sculpture faculty that I should be into sculpture, not ceramics. I am forever grateful to Bruce Breckenridge for having the courage to challenge me in such an unconventional and confrontational way. In college today, he probably would have been fired.
In the 70s, you had a body of work consisting of autographed photos of yourself. What was it ?
They were part of my questioning about the motivations of artists. Why did we make art? Was it for fame, or personal enlightenment, or money, or an obsessive need to do things, or maybe just a passion to make what our mind was thinking real? I had no answer, but the corrupt idea of making art just to be famous had crept into my mind. It seemed to my 20-year-old mind that this was the purpose of the gallery system and the “art business”. So I thought I’d bypass all of that, and ironically, work to be famous.
So I printed 100 photos and tried to sell them for $2 each. The only people to ever buy one were Morris Yarowsky (defective VCU paint) and Allen Ginsberg. But Ginsburg didn’t buy any, he traded me a strand of his beard for a photo. It was during a drinking party at Bertha’s in Baltimore after being a guest artist at the Maryland Institute of Art for two days.
Have students changed since the 1970s?
The students I had when I started teaching were just phenomenal. There was a sense of commitment, energy and experimentation. There was also the carefree and personal search that permeated the atmosphere of the department. The students, and the faculty for that matter, were makers. Professors from the schools where our undergraduates went to graduate school always commented on their knowledge of materials and our students’ ability to think conceptually and make physical objects.
I think the focus on making has become less central and there now seems to be a lot more emphasis on the message that the work can deliver. It is also a sign of the times. Often, artistic creation now focuses on social injustice, climate change, social norms, gender, equality and the difficult issues facing young people. Much of the new art highlights these issues. For young, developing artists, focusing on these issues seems to supersede and/or reinforce some of the previous aesthetic concerns.
How did you go from sculptor to co-owner of the Texas Wisconsin Border Café?
It was the result of many early 80s parties at Joe’s Inn with my friends Donna and Lester Van Winkle and James Bradford. We always complained about blue laws in Virginia and how every new bar that opened was a “fern bar” and nothing like the good old neighborhood taverns in our home states of Texas and Wisconsin.
Then the Dixie Inn was for sale. We signed the papers and to our surprise it took off and for the next 17 years we had a thriving business. Lots of marriages, divorces, dating, and lots of nonsense and good food and drink happened in the years that followed. I have wonderful memories of Saturday afternoon musical sessions on a portable plywood stage in the forward cabin with Page Wilson, Don’t Ax Me Bitch and Elves, the Mexican Elvis. Baby Huey and the Babysitters was a nine piece band that filled the stage and the aisle, and you could only get in or out of the place between songs as the entire front of the restaurant was filled with their band.
In addition to the music playing at TWB, we had celebrity visits: Tiny Tim, Rodeo Champion Jim Shoulders, Ben Gazzara, who our waitress had to tell to stop whistling, James Wood, Craig T. Nelson , we think John Cusack and Mötley Crüe, who Jim dumped because he was loaded and they were assholes.
Wow. What would today’s Joe want 1974’s Joe to know?
You will find that life is full of surprises, so keep your eyes peeled and don’t be afraid to take risks. Important: say yes as soon as possible, because you never know what awaits you around the corner. Life is like hanging on to a dog’s tail, you never know where it will run.
“Altered Visions” and “Classical Opera” open May 6 at 5 p.m. “Altered Visions” runs through June 24 at the Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St. “Classical Opera” will be available by appointment until through June 24 at 1609 West Main Street, Lane Entrance, by emailing [email protected] to schedule a viewing.