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The Seeker 

Before a new show at Reynolds Gallery, former VCU Arts Dean Joe Seipel looks back at a life spent making and teaching art.

click to enlarge "Classical Opera" by artist Joe Seipel is a 28' x 14' x 12" sculpture made with fiberglass and painted faux marble. The piece includes sound, projected images, large tailored suit, sound and some moving parts.

"Classical Opera" by artist Joe Seipel is a 28' x 14' x 12" sculpture made with fiberglass and painted faux marble. The piece includes sound, projected images, large tailored suit, sound and some moving parts.

It is impossible to talk about sculpture at VCU without talking about Joe Seipel.

From a one-year contract in 1974 that morphed into a tenured track position, to becoming the chair of the Department of Sculpture in 1985, Seipel went on to become the senior associate dean and director of graduate studies for the entire school.

After a stint at the Savannah College of Art and Design as vice president for 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 away to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City as interim dean of the School of Art and Design for six months. Back in his studio, he was asked to take on the interim position of director of the new Institute for Contemporary Art, which he did for a year. Since 2019, Seipel is a full-time artist.

The result of having all his time to devote to art-making is behind two new exhibitions of Seipel’s which open this weekend. The Reynolds Gallery will host “Altered Visions,” a series of mixed media pieces that began life as photographs before being built up into three-dimensional objects. “Classical Opera,” a sculptural installation with a conceptual foundation in ancient Greek tragedy, debuts at the artist’s own studio in the Fan.

Seipel attributes his path in sculpture to the American Bricks, a precursor to Legos, which as a child he combined with Lincoln Logs and an erector set to build cities that sprawled throughout his family’s home. High school introduced him to clay sculpture, which led to a serious exploration of ceramics in college.

Style Weekly: So, how’d you get from ceramics to sculpture?

Joe Seipel: After I transferred to UW Madison, I had a wild, wonderful teacher named Bruce Breckenridge. He watched my studio progress and one night, while I was working late in the ceramic studio, he crawled in through the English basement window, quite loaded and wobbly from his evening at the 602 Club, and purposely stepped on and broke some of my work.

Then he laughed at me for thinking 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 I had some ideas that were my own. After two weeks of missing my other classes, soul searching, frenetic drawing and trying to figure out who I was, and how my art needed to more personal and honest, I brought a 2-inch stack of drawings to him.

He looked at them, grabbed my arm, took me up to the sculpture studio and told the sculpture faculty that I needed to be in sculpture, not ceramics. I’m forever grateful to Bruce Breckenridge for the guts to challenge me in such an unconventional, confrontational way. At today’s university, he’d probably have been fired.

In the ‘70s, you had a body of work that consisted of autographed pictures of yourself. What was that about?

They were part of my questioning the motives of artists. Why did we make art? Was it for fame, or personal enlightenment, or money, or an obsessive need to make things, or maybe just a passion to make real what our mind was thinking? I had no answer but the corrupt idea of making art just to be famous had crept into my thinking. It seemed to my 20-year-old mind that it was what the gallery system and the ‘art business’ was all about. So I thought I’d bypass all that, and tongue in cheek, work on being famous.

So I printed up 100 pictures and tried to sell them for $2 apiece. The only people to ever buy one were Morris Yarowsky (VCU Painting faulty) and Allen Ginsberg. But Ginsburg didn’t buy one, he traded me a lock of his beard for a picture. That was during an evening of drinking at Bertha’s in Baltimore after he’d been a visiting artist at the Maryland Institute of Art for two days.

Have students changed since the ‘70s?

The students I had in my early days of teaching were nothing short of phenomenal. There was a sense of commitment and energy and experimentation. There was also recklessness and personal searching that pervaded the atmosphere of the department. The students, and the faculty for that matter, were makers. Faculty in the schools where our undergraduates went to graduate school always commented on their materials knowledge, and how capable our students were at conceptual thinking and the making of physical objects.

I think that focus on making has become less central and there seems now to be a much heavier emphasis on the messaging that work can provide. It is also a sign of the times. Often art-making is now making a point about social injustice, climate change, social norms, gender, equality and the difficult problems young people are confronting. Much of new art is shining light on these problems. For young developing artists, focusing on these issues seems to be replacing and or enhancing some of the previous aesthetic concerns.

click to enlarge “James River Rapids,” 2021. 40 x 60 x 5 inches, archival inkjet print on poly-board with urethane foam, filled epoxy, acrylic paint and gypsum.
  • “James River Rapids,” 2021. 40 x 60 x 5 inches, archival inkjet print on poly-board with urethane foam, filled epoxy, acrylic paint and gypsum.

How did you go from sculpting to part-owning the Texas Wisconsin Border Café?

That was a result of many evenings in the early ‘80s at Joe’s Inn with my friends Donna and Lester Van Winkle and James Bradford. We were always complaining about the blue laws in Virginia and how every new bar that opened was a “fern bar” and not anything like the good old neighborhood taverns of our home states, 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 plus years, we had a thriving business. Many marriages, divorces, hook-ups, and much tomfoolery and good food and drink occurred in those ensuing years. I have wonderful memories of the Saturday afternoon music sessions on a portable plywood stage in the front booth with Page Wilson, Don’t Axe Me Bitch and Elves, the Mexican Elvis. Baby Huey and the Babysitters were a nine-piece band who filled the stage and aisle, and you could only get in or out the place between songs because the whole front of the restaurant was filled with their band.

Along with the music played at the TWB, we had celebrities visit: 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 threw out because he was loaded and they were being assholes.

Wow. What would today's Joe want 1974 Joe to know?

You’ll find out that life is full of surprises, so keep your eyes wide open and don’t be afraid to take chances. Important: say yes whenever possible because you never know what’s around the corner. Life is like hanging on to a dog’s tail, you never know where it’s going to run.

“Altered Visions” and “Classical Opera” open May 6 at 5 p.m. “Altered Visions” runs through June 24 at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St. “Classical Opera” will be available to visit by appointment through June 24 at 1609 West Main Street, back-alley entrance, by emailing gallery@reynoldsgallery.com to schedule a visit.

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