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VCU's Joe Seipel is named outstanding sculpture educator by an international organization. 

Worldwide Recognition

Outside, the thermometer is soaring. But inside a Fan watering hole, Joe Seipel sits on a high stool nursing a tall glass of water with a lemon wedge floating among the ice cubes. The sculptor and outgoing head of Virginia Commonwealth University's sculpture department is still riding a high. June 9, he'd received a standing ovation in Pittsburgh at the International Sculpture Conference upon accepting the 2001 Outstanding Sculpture Educator Award. That same evening, Nam June Paik, the Korean-born, internationally known, "father of video art" received a lifetime achievement award (last year the honor went to Robert Rauschenberg).

"This blew my mind," said Seipel, 53, his eyes dancing at the thought of joining such lofty company.

The native Minnesotan has taught at VCU for 27 years. "The most important thing an educator in the arts can do is to work in their field," says Seipel. "I like to think of the sculpture department faculty as artists who happen to teach. This is important. If that's not the case, you cheat the students.

"Everyone is a real professional in their teaching as well as their work," he says of the 16 full- and part-time professors in his department whose programs are ranked among the best in the country. "We learn from each other. The department has a good chemistry."

U. S. News & World Reports lists its 12-student graduate program as fifth best nationally (behind Yale, Cranbrook, the Chicago Art Institute and the Rhode Island School of Design). The graduate program has taken on an international spirit with students from Ecuador, Korea, Japan and Spain. The 137-student undergraduate sculpture program is ranked in the top 20. And Seipel says the department's new home in the fine arts building on West Broad Street is as fine as any such facility in the nation.

"Sculpture has caught people's attention," he explains. "It doesn't have the limitations often perceived in other disciplines. As the world has become more digital, sculpture allows contact with the `tactile.' Sculpture is where a lot of things have landed — video, robotics, virtual reality, sound and language manipulation. The computer is a really terrific tool, it's amazing. It's opened up other worlds. But it's a tool to make art," he cautions, "it doesn't make good art."

Although Seipel is stepping down after 16 years as department chair, he will start a new position as associate dean of academic affairs and director of graduate studies for the School of the Arts. He will continue to teach and still finds time to do his own sculpture.

His current project is a complex, 30-foot multimedia work composed of molded fiber glass, projections, moving images, audio, pixilated slide images and a robotic self-portrait. "All kinds of bells and whistles," he laughs.

Trouble is, finding a place to display it. "I'm looking for something about the size of a basketball court," he says.

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