Lester Van Winkle

what a guy!

what a guy!

Here’s to Lester Van Winkle, amazing artist, inspiring professor (winner of the prestigious CAA Distinguished Teaching of Art Award and 2003 VCU Convocation Honoree), and dear friend.  Though he has retired there is much to continue learning from this “scooter” and I share some with you in this post:

“I just finished reading ‘Seabiscuit,'” said Professor Lester Van Winkle, referring to the story of jockey Red Pollard and the racehorse Seabiscuit, which has recently been made into a movie. “I’m a better man for it.”

That’s how Van Winkle frames the value of art in our lives. “Without Monument Avenue, Richmond would be just another town,” he says by way of another example. “And it doesn’t cost you anything to enjoy it.”

Professor Van Winkle, however, would rather talk about the “kids” – VCU’s sculpture students. “They are a magical lot with a compulsion to make things,” he said. “They are aggressive. They want to get ahead, and their curiosity is palpable.

“Most of them succeed in anything they try after college, whether it’s medicine or cooking or writing or art,” he continues. “They’re multitalented.”

And these students have a tendency to fill the seats of the best graduate schools in the country. “Our kids have been in every major graduate school. We’ve had two senior classes where every single student who applied got into the graduate program of their first choice,” Van Winkle said. “Other graduate schools are always soliciting us for our students,” he adds, although he said there is a rumor going around that the Chicago Art Institute has decided to accept only one VCU sculpture graduate per year because they are dominating the program.

The goal of the sculpture faculty is to leave students “with something in their head and something in their hand,” Professor Van Winkle said. Moreover, in a class devoted to a creative subject, there are no right or wrong answers, only “better or worse answers.”

That explains why the critique is so essential to teaching art. VCU’s critiques are “legendary,” Professor Van Winkle said. “Get a group of alumni together, and what they’ll talk about are critiques.” Among the most legendary are Lester Van Winkle’s. He is known for what his colleagues and students call “Lester’s Laws.” Examples include “Never let your story be more interesting than your art”; “There is nothing negative about space”; and “Always assume the viewer is more informed than you are.” Not for nothing are Professor Van Winkle’s critiques considered “condensed and diagnostic” according to his colleagues.

To him, effective teaching is about bringing out the best in all students, not just those with the most obvious talent. “Chuck Rennick once told me that any jerk can get by with the best work of his best students,” he said, referring to the late Professor Rennick who was chair of sculpture in 1969 when Professor Van Winkle joined VCU. “But those who really teach bring the back of the class up.”

In fact, the traits he admires most in his students are less about talent and more about their commitment to discipline. “A lot of people think art school is about sitting around emoting,” Professor Van Winkle said. “Actually, it’s a lot of hard work.”

His dedication to helping students persevere in translating their vision into an object is a reason he is regarded as the quintessential studio teacher, particularly in the wood shop and the foundry. There, commented one of his colleagues, “students directly confront the battle between artistic intent and the laws of nature. Of all the visual arts, the discipline of sculpture is most critically poised against gravity, material imperative and entropy.”

After he completed his bachelor’s degree in art with a minor in history (another lifelong interest of his, particularly the writings of Douglas Southall Freeman), he went on to the University of Kentucky for his master’s degree. “I entered college in 1963 and never left.”

Professor Van Winkle easily could have made his mark on the strength of his art alone. During the past three decades, he has built up an extraordinary body of work that has been exhibited in galleries in Richmond, Washington, D.C., New York City, Ankara SP, Turkey, and Lima, Peru, among other cities. His work can be found in the public collections of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the National Collection of American Arts, to name only two, as well as in 70 private collections, including those of Sydney and Frances Lewis and retired White House correspondent Helen Thomas.

But he likes being in higher education. “Universities are places of adventure,” he said. “Why would I want to be anywhere else?” From serving on the College Art Association’s Excellence in Teaching Art Committee to the thousands of dollars in grants he has attracted, Professor Van Winkle’s involvement in art has come mostly out of the university setting.

He is uncomfortable taking credit for the Distinguished Teaching Award, noting that it really is about his colleagues and what they have built over the past three decades and more. “We knew, back in 1969, that Yale wasn’t that much better than us, and that we had the tools to become quite special,” he said.

Yale’s sculpture program is still highly regarded, ranked second by U.S. News & World Report – right behind VCU. He credits the faculty and their own perseverance, generous spirit and belief in common goals over the years to building the number one ranked sculpture program in the country.

And there is another factor: the new School of the Arts Building on Broad Street. In 1969 sculpture classes were conducted in carriage houses, garages and basements all across the Academic Campus. “Thank God for President Trani,” he says about the new building that brings sculpture, crafts, and painting and printmaking students together in one location – “in a place they can call home,” he said.

What is most important to Professor Van Winkle is the fate of his students. “When they’re successful, when they get shows, when they get a piece in the Whitney Museum – that’s what makes my day. That’s validation.”


The following I circulate at popular request and with serious misgivings
that they might be ?mistook.?  These advisories or faux‑rules were first
instituted in 1974.  They were applied to a class of sophomores whose
insistence on repetitious inanities, like solutions and non‑thinking was
awe inspiring.  Out of desperation these notions were circulated to insure
some modest degree of creativity, or possibly a small revolution in a
class of really comfortable underachievers.  Although I intended them only
as beginners? guidelines, they have become known as Lester?s Laws.  These
?Laws? have been widely circulated at popular request and which edition
this is, is not known.

1.  Do not arrive on time for this class.  Be early and appear busy.
Punctuality and thrift precede cleanliness in the eyes of ?You Know Who.?

2.  Have ideas in your work.  Mere personal expression is unavoidable,
highly overrated, and can be sloppily self‑indulgent.

3.  If you have no ideas, check your pulse.

4.  If you have an idea (one) you are in trouble.

5.   If you steal ideas, cover your tracks.  Be the master thief.  Do the
perfect crime.  Or don?t.  Be a postmodern, deconstructivist, conceptual
appropriationist.  Plagiarism is in fashion.  Fashion is vicious and

6.  Remember that in our game an idea is no better than its articulation.

7.  Speak up in critiques.  Ye shall be known by your words.

8.  In critiques do not say, ?I like.?  For obvious reasons, like you’re
talking mostly about yourself . . . or whatever.

9.  If you believe that criticism is only personal opinion, quit school
now.  Save your money.  Personal opinions are absolutely free and in infinite
supply on the street.

10.Beware of art jargon.  No one knows what words like balance and
rhythm mean.

11. Believe me, there is nothing negative about space.  The
constructivists considered space a tangible material.

12. Never let your story be more interesting than your art.

13. Never explain your choices by what you did not want.  What you did
not want or intend is an infinite set.

14. Do not let American industry make the color, surface, image,
proportional or scale choices in your work.

15. High tech, avant‑garde or expensive traditional materials will not
improve bad ideas.

16. Simple repetition never doesn?t work.  Repetition, like contrast,
is a visual phenomenon, not a conceptual issue.

17. Do not make things the same size without good reason.  MODERN
REVISION:  No, do not make things the same size.

18. Do not center or divide things in the middle.  The middle is such
a swell place; it should always be reserved for special occasions.

19. Do not use obvious proportion ratios.  1:1, 2:1, 2:4 etc.

20. Avoid bilateral symmetry and 90 degree angles.  (See special

21. Do not arrange things that ?lead? your eye in a circle, square,
rectangle, triangle, cube, cone, etc.

22. If you want to use black, white, or gray, see me first.

23. Always make primary colors secondary choices.

24. Give color significant jobs to do in your work.

25. Paint all carvings, particularly stone carvings.

26. Find significant terminations for three‑dimensional lines.

27. Always radically modify or rectify found objects.

28. Remove source references from found objects.

29. Make weird things.  It is an artist?s job to do so.

30. Remember that all things in the same context relate.  Any further
similarities, connections, parallels, vectors, or threads only compound an
already existing relationship.

31.The only thing worse than a bad piece of sculpture is a big, bad
piece of sculpture.  Even worse is a big, bad, red piece of sculpture.

32.Trust your instincts.  Trust your intuition.  They are your best

8 Responses to “Lester Van Winkle”

  1. » Lester Van Winkle White House On Best Political Blogs: News And Info On White House Says:

    […] Van Winkle Posted in October 29th, 2008 by in Uncategorized Lester Van Winkle … the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the National Collection of American Arts, to name only […]

  2. » Lester Van Winkle Says:

    […] “Most of them succeed in anything they try after college, whether it’s medicine or cooking or writing or art,” he continues. “They’re multitalented.” And these students have a tendency to fill the seats of the best graduate schools in ..Lester Van Winkle […]

  3. Mac Boggs Says:


    Congratulations on all your accomplishments– well deserved—
    i can attest to seeing “lesters laws” in the making as I watched a young Texan learn and practice his trade in a former tobacco warehouse in Lexington Ky. I am fortunate to have had that opportunity and such great memories of you and the Reynolds Building group

    Take Care

  4. doris shick denudt Says:

    any idea how to get a thank you to him directly. He still pops up in my dreams making marks on my mind. He was also the first person to ever warp my time space – literally.
    Thnks for your summary and memories.

  5. Violet Says:

    With a few idle moments in front of the computer I thought…whose name should I google before moving on to my next project of the day and getting lost…oh hell, Lester Van Winkle 36 years later wonder what the man is doing…no doubt inspiring minds of young and old to engage in controlled random thought…imagine my surprise to see a Lester with short hair and wearing a suit…maybe pigs really can fly…Lester you have been with me for 36 years now… evertime I design anything from a business to a dinner party…thank you my long ago friend…forever greatful to you the original Space Cowboy…congrats on your accomplishments…much love and respect, Violet

  6. Bill Kendall Says:

    There’s been a death in the family, and accordingly that results in looking back at boxes of stuff. So, I’m going through boxes of old letters, and came across a couple of letters from Lester (not to worry, I shredded them right away), and wondered what in the world has happened to my friend of so many years ago – my friend from Charlotte Watson’s classes at DMC, circa 1962-63.
    To my great surprise, I found all this wonderful stuff on Google. What a delight it is to see such terrific success from this guy from Banquette!
    I should very much love to hear from Lester; does he respond to these notes? I hope so.

  7. Michael R. Van Winkle Says:

    Where does one find the sculpture, entiled-I think-Selma, on the internet? Thought is was in a permanent collection in Selma AL.

  8. Bill West Says:

    I would like to make a connection with you. We are SculptSite.com the number one site on the Internet for ‘Sculpture News’ according to Google, Yahoo and Bing out of over 25 million indexed pages. In addition a new site is launching late this month with many more features for Sculptors to get their work noticed on an international basis. We never share or sell e-mail addresses – can we get your e-mail address for our records?
    Best regards,
    Bill West