The following article [itself a reprint] is reprinted from pages 6-8 of the September 1995 edition of St. Cloud Unabridged with the permission of its publisher and author, Stuart Goldschen.
Editors Note: The following article is reprinted from the December 1994 edition of St. Cloud Unabridged in recognition of the completion after four years of local artist Joseph O’Connell’s 26,000-pound limestone sculpture, “Christ the King,” at the College of St. Benedict. A “wall-bashing party” to celebrate the event, attended by several hundred friends and admirers of O’Connell, was held in CSB’s Benedicta Arts Center on Aug. 12.
By Stuart Goldschen
Photographs hang in screaming silence on the studio walls of local sculptor Joseph O’Connell.
There’s a child assisting a fallen adult in the Warsaw Ghetto, two African children suckling at either breast of their poverty-ravaged mother, and the weak and weathered hands of a Somalia native trying desperately to lift a naked and emaciated child folded face down on the dusty ground.
And there are the poor but proud African women whose faces and stature reflect a regal dignity belying their incessant struggle to survive, and the kissing-close profile of the toddler son of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with a long single tear streaked down his cheek at the funeral of his slain father.
For O’Connell, the photographs are a stark and aesthetic reminder of the human condition that affords a cloistered artist an essential window on the world.
“I just want to turn around and remind myself every once in a while [what the real world is like],” he said. “You can get caught up portraying something in your work and you’re not thinking sometimes about what’s going on out there, and it goes on and on and on.”
An artist in residence as the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, O’Connell seldom stops thinking about what goes on out there; his latest work is a monument to his deep sense of humanity as well as his artist talent.
He has just completed a four-year-long effort to sculpture a limestone triptych whose three separate sections measure 8-by-3 feet, 7-by-6 feet, and 4-by-7 feet, and total 26,000 pounds. An inch higher on the largest one, he said, and he wouldn’t have been able to bring it into the skylight-domed foyer of the student art classrooms at CSB where he has worked in a panel-partitioned provisional studio.
The center and tallest sculpture is a depiction of “Christ the King” arriving on a donkey in Jerusalem, flanked by two panels showing a variety of human life, death and hardship. Preparations are underway to ship the entire work to the owner that commissioned it, Christ the King Catholic Community in Las Vegas, Nev.
To celebrate the completion and honor O’Connell for his years of dedicated service to art and humanity, a festive “wall-bashing party” was held in the Benedicta Arts Center at the College of St. Benedict on Aug. 12. Several hundred friends, supporters and members of the local art community attended as an expression of their deep appreciation for his particular tour de force and his general contribution to art and the world at large.
O’Connell’s “Christ the King” sculpture is a vivid depiction of the family of mankind in need of a helping hand. In carved lettering at the top of the right panel (designed, cut and painted by Janey Westin of Edina, Minn.), he invokes the words of Christ in Matthew, verse 25, when Jesus explains, “Just as you did for the least of my family, you did for me.”
“I was hungry, you gave me food,” the inscription reads. “Thirsty, you gave me drink; a stranger, you welcomed me; naked, you clothed me; sick, you took care of me; in prison, you visited me.”
Among the figures in O’Connell’s busy sculpture are poor street people and street animals, including dogs, cats, and rats; a drunk, desolate and hopeless woman pulling her knees to her chest; imprisoned naked fingers squeezed between scenes; a pair of hands reaching through jail bars to beg for help from–or to bless–a waiting woman; and a poor couple ensconced in a street culvert, embraced in the most intimate act of life in the only place they have to go.
“I wasn’t trying to be specific or set it in time,” O’Connell said of his work. “It means everyone: people in Africa, China, around the globe–they’re all of a family. These are human things and they happen everywhere, regardless of who or what we are or what beliefs we have.
“These are things that are required of us out of love, out of humanity, and that’s what the message is.”
O’Connell envisioned that message as an extension of the request by the Las Vegas parish for a non-regal and more intimate rendering of Christ the King entering Jerusalem.
He took it upon himself to do two extra panels, partially to complete his artistic vision, but also because of the people who commissioned him to do it. He said he was very impressed by the community’s commitment to put all of its resources into feeding and sheltering the poor and homeless of the Las Vegas area.
“It impressed me to see a parish in this day and age do that, and I think it’s important that that be enhanced and supported,” he said. “I asked them if I could make three pieces, and they said I could do what I want but that they could not afford the extra expense, so I said, ‘Just buy me the stone and I’ll do the work.’”
The community found O’Connell about seven years ago through an art connection in Oakland, Calif., but struggled for a time with the dilemma of spending money on art or on the poor before offering him the job for what they felt they could afford.
O’Connell began work on the sculpture in January 1991, maintaining to this day a steady self-discipline and devotion to the meaning as well as the design of his creation.
Gordon Goetemann, chair of the CSB/SJU art department said it was “remarkable” that O’Connell was able to do it.
“To be able to sustain and continue to nurture such a high level of interest and commitment over such a long period of time requires a very unique kind of discipline and sensibility,” he said. “Not many people could bring that off.”
Goetemann said the sculpture ranks among O’Connell’s best works–if not the best–and captures so well the sense of oppression from economic enslavement, racial prejudice and other of mankind’s inhumanities to mankind.
“I particularly like the right-hand side where these figures are caged in very small spaces,” he said. “The tension between the scale of the figures and the amount of space in which they have to live out their lives is a very powerful kind of social comment. I find that very moving.”
O’Connell himself moves people as well, and those who know him praise him both his human and artistic talents.
“He is universally admired for living according to the values that he professes,” Goetemann said, “and he is loved because there’s complete consistency between what he says and what he does. He’s genuinely admirable.”
Goetemann said O’Connell has a national reputation in the world of liturgical art, but also has produced non-religious works, including satirical sculptures as social commentary.
“He has a terrific sense of humor as well and tells terrific jokes in dialect,” Goetemann added. “If you haven’t heard him tell a story in Jewish or Irish dialect, you have a treat in store for you.”
At work in his studio, however, O’Connell is meticulously serious. He sculpts slowly but precisely to make meaning out of mass, using only his customary arrangement of hammers and chisels, many forged by himself. He shuns power tools as incompatible with his working style.
“I think slowly, and an air tool goes faster than I can think,” he said, “so I do everything by hand with hammer and chisel.”
And there’s no reason to change, given his nearly 50 years of artistic creation, a deep respect from other artists and teachers, and a continuing demand for his work.
O’Connell, who turned 68 on Jan. 15, the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., has had his troubles as a slow thinker, however, but he has overcome the obstacles and flourished where the odds predicted otherwise.
The humble, soft-spoken, incisively-witty and humorous artist is an avid learner who never finished high school due to learning difficulties. He has acquired instead an advanced degree in perspective on the modalities and realities of life, just as he has learned to treasure the sensuous nature of his medium, be it wood, limestone, sandstone, ebony, granite, steel, iron, ivory, bronze or marble.
“I was just not a student…and the worst thing in my life was school,” O’Connell said. “I’m very slow thinking and have a short memory and never got past the freshman year after three years of high school.”
Fashioning art, however, was another matter, and he has never tired of what he called “the sensuous pleasure of working with my hands.” Trying to create without that feeling, he said, is “like trying to make love in a rubber suit.”
O’Connell also is a very private and modest person who flinches at praise and minimizes his accomplishments; he is much more comfortable chipping stone than chatting with reporters.
“I’ve always said and believe that every artist that’s born should have their tongues disconnected at age 3,” he said. “Art should be seen and the artist not heard because most of us make ridiculous statements.”
O’Connell was born in Chicago and raised, after the death of him mother during birth, by a number of different people, including his father and grandfather. His father was a vocational teacher and master craftsman, and his grandfather an inventor and engineer who conceived the telephone party line and received a personal acknowledgement form Thomas Edison.
Edison, inventor of the fist commercially practical incandescent lamp, also never finished school, and neither did Firestone nor Ford–nor O’Connell’s grandfather.
O’Connell joined the army in the waning days of World War II and served in Okinawa and the Philippines before returning to Chicago and working in a steel factory and his uncle’s printing company.
He spent a semester in art school at the University of Illinois before it was discovered he had no high school diploma and was expelled, and he tried his hand as well at the American Academy of Art but didn’t stay there very long either.
He met his future wife, Joann “Jody” Wylie, at the art school, and they were married in 1953. The have five children, who now range in age from 40 to 30, and six grandchildren.
O’Connell was painting, drawing and driving a cab in 1951 when he began his first carving, a small figure of St. Francis for the jazz musician Muggsy Spanier and his wife with whom he was living at the time. Spanier’s wife was the mother of O’Connell’s best friend, jazz pianist Buddy Charles.
O’Connell was influenced largely by the autobiography and works of Eric Gill (1882-1940), a British sculptor and calligrapher who rejuvenated the art of direct stone carving as opposed to the creation of clay models that others would copy in stone.
“I liked what he did, and I tried it and was hooked,” O’Connell said. “I’ve been doing sculpture ever since.”
Another influence on O’Connell’s general artistic bent occurred about the same time when he traveled to Mexico and was profoundly affected by the works of the country’s famous muralists, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueros and Diego Rivera.
He actually met Rivera one day by boldly climbing the scaffolding on which the artist was working in the government palace in Mexico City.
“Being 21 and just dumb, I climbed the scaffolding and went up to talk to him,” O’Connell said. “It was a terrible thing, but it dawned on me only when I was up there. He was taken aback and I apologized, but he was most gracious and asked where I was from and what I was doing.”
Then O’Connell notices Rivera’s assistant, “an absolute gorgeous, dark-haired, young Mexican Indian woman,” he said, who was helping Rivera mix paints and handing them to him, and O’Connell said playfully, “That’s when I decided to be an artist.”
The work came slowly thereafter as O’Connell learned to sculpt through on-the-job training, always managing to progress by sheer desire and instinctive artistic sensitivity.
When asked in 1953 by Corpus Christi Parish in Chicago to do a 6-foot limestone stature of St. Francis, he readily accepted, realizing only too late that “I had not idea number one how to do it.”
“I didn’t know what size hammer or what size tools to get, or where to buy them, and I had to get a how-to book,” he said. “I went at it, nevertheless, starting in mid-April and finishing in May or June. That same thing today would take a year or more.”
In 1953 at Notre Dame University in Indiana, O’Connell met the Rev. Cloud Meinberg, a monk at St. John’s University in Collegeville who founded the SJU art department. Meinberg offered O’Connell a teaching position at St. John’s, but O’Connell humbly refused, explaining that he wasn’t qualified and couldn’t teach.
He reconsidered soon afterward, however, when he realized he didn’t have enough money to pay his wife’s hospital bill for the delivery of their first child.
“I asked for a $500 advance, got my wife and son out of the hospital, and we moved up here,” he said.
O’Connell taught the Collegeville campus for two years, only to become more convinced that he was not qualified for the job because he said he did not know enough and was only learning himself.
He left the university but bought an old rundown house in Collegeville on two acres of land from St. John’s and has been there ever since, pursuing his art independently.
He has worked hard and sacrificed through the decades to support his family, but he feels fortunate always to have had a modest commission to keep him going–as well as the availability of used cars, used clothes, sympathetic creditors and charitable friends.
Health insurance was more elusive, however, and he wasn’t able to protect his family until he was hired recently by CSB.
Goetemann said that lifestyle is unique these days and that O’Connell is “somehow universally loved because of that.”
“He’s doing something that none of the rest of us seem quite to have the courage to do, and on top of it he’s succeeding,” Goetemann said. “That’s really quite special.”
O’Connell explained, “There have been times when we thought we couldn’t make it, but something has always happened.”
Conditions, however, were not always as good as he currently enjoys, and at one time he was forced to work in a plastic tent alongside his garage while sculpting a limestone “Angel Guardian Group” for a Chicago orphanage. The work’s three carvings were a 60-inch “Christ with Child,” a 49-inch “Child” and a 6-foot “Angel” that he finished in 1960.
“I had to heat with a 50-gallon barrel, cutting wood, cord after cord after cord, splitting it and getting the fire going,” he said. “It was very, very difficult.”
And again, in 1961, after nearly two years of work in a makeshift shed in the Mankato stone quarries, O’Connell completed his biggest creation ever, a giant 50-by-43-foot “Sacred Heart Façade” stone sculpture for a Chicago seminary.
“I drove down and spent the week there and came back on weekends for about 18 months,” he said. “They had a shed for me to work in, but the carving was spread out so far I couldn’t put it all together. I couldn’t see all the work I was doing and had to rely on my drawings [for perspective].”
In 1987, O’Connell was hired by CSB as an artist in residence for both its campus and SJU, and soon thereafter he began teaching a fundamental drawing class for non-art majors as well. He then added an open Monday night figure drawing class that he still teaches.
O’Connell dropped the fundamental drawing class two years ago to concentrate on finishing his “Christ the King” sculpture and to consult with professional art movers about how to safely transport it to Las Vegas.
That task nearly complete now, O’Connell is looking ahead. There’s always an idea in his mind, as well as a commission in his pocket, and he’s still busy chasing elusive perfection.
“Art means something, and you don’t cheat on it,” he said. “You work at it and you do the best you possibly can, but you also know you’re always going to fail. It never comes out the way you want, and your always falling short.
“But you try to push a little bit further each time, and you lean on yourself so each work becomes better than the last one." And in the process, O’Connell would stress, you turn around every now and then to the photographs on the walls to remind yourself of what you’re really after.
Reprinted from the September 1995 edition of St. Cloud Unabridged with the permission of its publisher and author, Stuart Goldschen.
Special thanks to Ruth Wentz '05 for text transcription.