Harold E. North, former Department of Sculpture chair at VCU, dies at age 89

Man in welding clothes stands in a studio.
Harold North, former chair of the VCU Department of Sculpture, in the studio. (Photo courtesy VCU School of the Arts)

It was about 100 degrees the day Harold North picked up Joseph H. Seipel from the Richmond airport for a job interview at Virginia Commonwealth University. It was August 1974, and North, then chair of the Department of Sculpture, showed up wearing work clothes — not a suit as Seipel expected — in his beloved, beat-up, old Volkswagen. On the way to campus, the car broke down. North had to crawl underneath to reattach the fan belt, which, Seipel said, he did with great humor.

Back at the university, North interviewed Seipel at a picnic table.

“The interview that they conducted was not like a normal job interview,” said Seipel, dean emeritus of the VCU School of the Arts. “It was just sitting around a picnic table and talking with students and talking with the faculty. It was very gracious and quite actually a very positive, wonderful experience. I loved the place from the very beginning because of him.”

Harold North.
Harold North. (Photo credit: Special Collections and Archives, VCU Libraries)

North, who helped set the foundation for the nationally prominent VCU sculpture program, and who hired a roster of celebrated faculty that helped the School of the Arts develop into a national power, died Monday. He was 89.

North started his career as an interior and industrial designer, conceiving the Kings Dominion sign structure that is still visible from Interstate 95. In 1968, he took over as chair of the Department of Sculpture, a position he held for three decades. During that time, he oversaw the hiring of celebrated faculty José Puig, Myron Helfgott, Chuck Henry, Lester Van Winkle and Seipel, as well as the department secretary, Connie Brown.

“Together they set the precedent for excellence — and irreverence — that we strive for in the studios to this day,” said Matt King, chair of the Department of Sculpture and Extended Media and an associate professor.

North is remembered fondly as a kind and generous educator who served as a positive mentor for his students. In his honor each year, the Harold North Award for excellence in sculpture is given to an exceptional student who demonstrates commitment to quality and craftsmanship.

“There was a sense that the students were the most important thing and that we were there to help students,” Seipel said. “The university and the department were there to be of assistance to the faculty, but the faculty were there for the students. That was the prevailing way of thinking across the entire department. I think that that kind of graciousness and openness to students was part and parcel of what made us a little bit unique and much of that had to do with Harold's leadership.”

North equally loved his department and faculty, Seipel said.

“I think we were a rather unusual department in that there was such camaraderie,” Seipel said. “He was a real loyal, positive chair and in every moment I dealt with him was a most fair and honorable man both with students and with faculty. … There will be a lot of our alumni who will miss him dearly, as we will in the faculty.”

North and the faculty that worked with him set the early tone for the department by creating a particular culture, King said. The sense of community, he said, “is what continues to keep the sculpture department, I think, so special.”