Know your art: A look at some of the notable works of art that grace the walls and grounds of VCU

A look at some of the notable works of art that grace the walls and grounds of VCU

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At Virginia Commonwealth University, which boasts the top-ranked public university arts and design program in the country – people are used to seeing students walking around campus carrying canvases or struggling under the weight of odd-shaped objects that could only be art projects. There is always an interesting exhibit on display at the school’s Anderson Gallery or the new gallery space in The Depot, and with the construction of the Institute for Contemporary Art underway, it’s only a matter of time before there’s even more art to marvel at and enjoy.

In the hustle and bustle of campus life, however, it can be easy to miss the art that surrounds us, whether it’s a sculpture we walk by every day or a painting hanging in the building next door that we didn’t even know was there. Following are a selection of just some of the notable works that can be found on VCU’s Monroe Park and MCV campuses.

“Truth and Beauty”

“Truth and Beauty,” a work by Lester Van Winkle and Ross Caudill
“Truth and Beauty,” a work by Lester Van Winkle and Ross Caudill

“Truth and Beauty,” a work by Lester Van Winkle, VCU professor emeritus of sculpture, and Ross Caudill, an alumnus of the VCU sculpture program, was created as part of VCU’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2008.

The work features two oversized wooden winged desks, made of bronze and stainless steel, which face a large easel with a sketch of Henry H. Hibbs, founder of the Richmond School of Social Economy, which became the Richmond Professional Institute and later VCU. The sculpture is located in the courtyard area between Hibbs Hall and the Anderson Gallery in the Shafer Court area of campus.

In 2008, Van Winkle, who taught at VCU for almost 40 years, said he envisioned “Truth and Beauty” as a piece that would invite participation by visitors. He said the sculpture is an homage to a classroom — a kind of “transparent classroom.” The oversized desks are elevated to keep visitors’ feet off the ground, eliciting a childlike feeling.

“When I pictured it, I saw it with people standing in it,” Van Winkle said. “Without folks wandering through it doesn’t function the way I want it to.”

Van Winkle featured Hibbs in the piece because of an admiration for his work at RPI.

“I think of Richmond as a city of wonderful ghosts, a city that all of these brilliant minds have walked through,” Van Winkle said. “Hibbs is part of that, a wonderful specter whose reputation as an educator and humanist is very enviable.”


“Bouboules,"  by American artist Alexander Calder
“Bouboules," by American artist Alexander Calder

This colorful lithograph by American artist Alexander Calder hangs behind the front desk in the Buford House at 922 W. Franklin St., home of the Department of Art History. Produced in 1971 and donated to VCU anonymously in 1972, it is likely a lithograph based on a gouache painting (gouache is a type of paint that is similar to watercolor but more opaque).

Calder is well-known for his mobiles, but he also produced paintings and prints — primarily lithographs. He revolutionized the world of sculpture by making movement a primary element of his works. In 1931, Marcel Duchamps coined the word “mobile” to describe one of Calder’s moving hanging sculptures.


“Tableith," by Charles Ponticello
“Tableith," by Charles Ponticello

“Tableith” was created to honor RPI and its connection to VCU. The piece weighs more than 20 tons and includes 51 cast disks stacked atop each other and spiraling upward. Each of the disks is inscribed with historical information or key events from the years 1917 to 1968, the year RPI merged with the Medical College of Virginia to form VCU.

Charles Ponticello, who received his M.F.A. in sculpture at VCU, created the work, which was installed in 2008.

“My primary focus is to produce a monumental effect with a sense of awe and respect rather than a ‘stand out’ personal interpretation with imagery that overcomes the purpose,” Ponticello said in an artist’s statement that accompanied the piece during a competition conducted by the RPI Sculpture Committee, which included several RPI alumni.

“Tableith” is located just west of Ginter House, which was known as the Ad Building during RPI’s existence. The building held a particular importance to RPI students, who gathered in front of the building as a meeting place.

In 2008, William O’Connell, a member of the RPI Sculpture Committee, said the sculpture would serve as a prominent physical reminder of RPI’s legacy at VCU and its importance to the university that grew from its origins.

“The idea was to create some lasting object that would let people know that there was a precursor to VCU,” O’Connell said. “It’s a way of letting the current students know about the history of their school.”

The medical murals

The medical murals painted by George Murrill
The medical murals painted by George Murrill

George Murrill, a Richmonder and Yale art school graduate, was hired in the fall of 1937 as an artist-in-residence by William T. Sanger, Ph.D., president of the Medical College of Virginia, to produce murals that would provide aesthetic comfort in the waiting rooms of the nine-story MCV Outpatient Clinic, which was later named the A.D. Williams Clinic.

Murrill worked in charcoal and later colorized the more than 100 feet of canvas, which would eventually depict images of the MCV physicians, nurses, patients and medical equipment of both the 19th century and the 1930s and 1940s.

Murrill first worked on the murals from 1937 to 1941, postponing the piece when he enlisted in the armed forces after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Upon his return, Murrill went to work for a Newport News dry dock and shipbuilder, making sporadic trips to Richmond to finish the murals for the clinic. They were completed in 1947.

The murals were removed from the waiting rooms of the A.D. Williams Clinic in 2010 before that building’s demolition. Under the leadership of Rick Vogt, they were painstakingly restored, preserved and mounted in the ground floor atrium of the James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Medical Education Center that opened in 2013.

McGlothlin artwork

“As We Cross the Empty Skies," by Ron Johnson
“As We Cross the Empty Skies," by Ron Johnson

A number of notable pieces are featured in the James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Medical Education Center, including several works from VCU School of the Arts alumni and faculty. Among the pieces is an installation created for the site by Ron Johnson (pictured above), who received his M.F.A. from VCU in 2003 and serves as assistant professor and administrative director of the Department of Painting and Printmaking. Johnson’s “As We Cross the Empty Skies” can be viewed inside the building’s lower entrance.

Other works include:
    ·   “Accelerator,” by Ross Caudill, who completed his M.F.A. degree from the Department of Sculpture and Extended Media in 2006
    ·   “Untitled,” by Tara Donovan, who received her M.F.A. from the Department of Sculpture and Extended Media in 1999
    ·   “Virginia Poke,” by Ray Kass, a professor emeritus of art at Virginia Tech
    ·   “Bartlett’s Hand,” by Elizabeth King, a professor in the Department of Sculpture and Extended Media at VCU
     ·   “Neither Here Nor There,” “Miss Smarty Pants,” “Continued” and “Painter’s Block,” by Richard Roth, professor in the Department of Painting and Printmaking at VCU
    ·   “Architecture of Thought,” “History of Love” and “Anatomy of Longing,” by Tanja Softic, a professor of art at the University of Richmond
    ·   “The Other Blue,” by Javier Tapia, associate professor in the Department of Painting and Printmaking at VCU

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Theresa Pollak’s “Self-Portrait”

Theresa Pollak’s “Self-Portrait”
Theresa Pollak’s “Self-Portrait”

Nestled against the wallpaper in the front drawing room or the Richard T. Robertson Alumni House on the Monroe Park Campus hangs a charming and intimate self-portrait of Theresa Pollak, founder of the VCU School of the Arts. The self-portrait, a gift of the artist, was painted in 1926 when Pollak was 27 years old.

Pollak, a native of Richmond, became VCU’s first art instructor, with a class of 20 students in 1928, when VCU was still the Richmond Division of The College of William and Mary. She taught generations of budding artists until her retirement from VCU in 1969. During her long and fruitful career (she died at age 103 in 2002), her works were displayed in many prominent institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Portrait of Col. Anderson

Colonel Abraham Archibald Anderson by German artist Hans Temple
Colonel Abraham Archibald Anderson by German artist Hans Temple

Also located in the Richard T. Robertson Alumni House is a huge late-19th-century portrait of Colonel Abraham Archibald Anderson by German artist Hans Temple. The painting (oil on canvas) is 90.5 x 59.5 inches, and its installation in 2001 was quite an undertaking, given its size.

Col. Anderson was an artist, art dealer, military officer, businessman and philanthropist who was essential to developing a thriving art community in Richmond. In fact, in 1930 he gave the Richmond Professional Institute $10,000 to establish an art gallery that we know today as VCU's Anderson Gallery. The inaugural exhibit in 1931 featured his paintings.


Temple Building murals

Mural in Temple Building by Nick Kuszyk
Mural in Temple Building by Nick Kuszyk

In 2010 and 2011, as part of a larger branding effort, the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, then the School of Mass Communications, decided to spruce up the beige walls of the Temple Building by hiring noted artists to paint murals inside the building.

Helmed by local artist Ed Trask, a VCU School of the Arts alumnus, the project also includes works by Chris Milk, El Kamino, VCU School of the Arts alumnus Nick Kuszyk and VCU Advertising alumni Chad Woods and Allen White. Pictured above is a mural in the southwest stairwell by Kuszyk, who is also known as “The Robot Guy.” 

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The works of W. Baxter Perkinson Jr.

"Irish Swans," by W. Baxter Perkinson Jr.
"Irish Swans," by W. Baxter Perkinson Jr.

There are literally hundreds of watercolors by local dentist, philanthropist and artist W. Baxter Perkinson Jr., D.D.S., spread across both of VCU’s campuses. Perkinson, a VCU alumnus, former Board of Visitors rector and current president of VCU Alumni, runs Richmond’s largest dental practice and has helped raise millions of dollars for charities through his art.

Not only has his generosity brought art to the walls of many VCU facilities, the paintings themselves have often helped raise funds for the university. In 2003, for example, at the culmination of a 50-piece show at the Anderson Gallery, Perkinson’s paintings were auctioned off to benefit the Inger and Walter Rice Center for Life Sciences. In 2006, he donated 106 watercolors to the School of Nursing’s new building and helped raise further funds for the building via an adopt-a-painting program.

Perkinson’s passion for art and his dedication to VCU and the Richmond community have continued over decades and never seem to wane. In a 2012 Richmond Times-Dispatch article, Sheldon Retchin, former CEO of the VCU Health System, said of the prolific painter: “He must hide elves somewhere. How can anyone work that much, build a practice and still paint?”

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“Soft,” by sculptor Craig R. Wedderspoon
“Soft,” by sculptor Craig R. Wedderspoon

This large welded aluminum sculpture is a familiar sight to students, faculty and staff walking past Grace E. Harris on VCU’s Monroe Park Campus. Created in 2006 and installed in 2007, the sculpture is a gift from artist Craig R. Wedderspoon, who described the piece in a 2007 Commonwealth Times article as representing “an argument between individuals as expressed through what they have unknowingly left behind.”

Wedderspoon graduated from VCU with a master’s in fine arts in 1999 and is currently an associate professor of art at the University of Alabama. The piece was chosen as part of the committee-led Art on Campus project, which was an effort to bring both indoor and outdoor public artwork to the university.


Feature image at top: "Accelerator," by Ross Caudill, located in the McGlothlin Center. Note that most of the pieces in this article are part of the Anderson Gallery's permanent collection.


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