Because of Harold

VCU Sculpture Dept, circa 1980

VCU Sculpture Dept, circa 1980

My career started in art school in the early 1980’s. It was our senior year, and I was burnt out. As seniors we each had our own private studio, in theory, to allow focused attention to our matured artistic vision. Mine was empty. It was a corner room with stark white walls and a waist high workbench. Most days I could be found curled into a fetal position under this bench pondering why I had wasted the past 3 years studying sculpture. This was the start of my UX career.

Stuck and insecure about my artistic future, the past few years of academic bliss was colliding with the reality that I was professionally unprepared for life. Although I had done well through my junior year, my senior year, so far was a bust, and I was running out of time. We worked in 2 week time blocks each ending in a critique held inside a gallery style classroom. Each critique counted toward a final grade. If you missed one or two, no big deal. But I had struggled to produce anything all semester. Harold North, my professor had been warning me that time was running out.

“The World’s Largest Cow”

“The World’s Largest Cow”

Desperate and out of ideas, I uncurled from underneath my workbench and wandered around picking up scraps of wood, Styrofoam, and paper. I had no ideas but decided just making something was better than nothing. So I brought my pile of scraps back to my studio and slapped it all together with plaster. It barely stood on its own but technically I made something to show the next day. I named it “The World’s Largest Cow.”

The next day during class critique, Harold intentionally saved me the embarrassment of trying to explain my mess by discussing everything in the room but mine. Finally there was no one left. A moment of silence hung over the class as he said, “Okay, would anyone like to talk about Archie’s work?”

“Archie has found himself,” said someone, “it was worth the wait.” And on and on they went.

They loved it, Harold was at first shocked, then pissed. As the class gushed about the gestural quality and genius of the work, he said nothing. After class he confronted me.

He grabbed my arm squeezing hard, gritting he teeth and said, “If you ever bring in a piece of crap like that again you’re finished.”

“But you heard the reaction,” I said, “nobody really cared if it just took one night to make it.”

“If you can work that fast then you’ve got two weeks to fill up a room with work. Ready? Go!” he stormed off. It was not until decades later did I realize what Harold North taught me. People ask me how I got into UX design from my beginnings as a sculpture, and I explain there’s a distinct line to be drawn from my problems solving process today and those born in an ugly green building in art school.

I did fill up that room. And knowing it was temporary, that it would be torn down without a public viewing, only added to my sense of freedom to explore new ideas. Without regard to quality, I cranked out a crap-load of work. A few pieces were actually interesting. Not great, but okay. One or two, out of 30 , seemed quite good to me.

I photographed everything and left the roomful of crap to destiny. The black and white photos of that room became my final piece of my fine art career as a VCU student.

I was able to tell Harold this story at our 2016 VCU Sculpture reunion. Harold passed away in January 2019. I love you Harold and we’ll miss you.

I was able to tell Harold this story at our 2016 VCU Sculpture reunion. Harold passed away in January 2019. I love you Harold and we’ll miss you.

Reflecting on those days, we worked in two week sprints, we made solutions, we wanted to make the world a better place. Everything I learned in art school, almost everything, led me to my place today. Earning a living, raising a family, helping others, all became possible.

It was because of Harold.