A Tribute: He Was In The Arts, You Know

Garrison Keillor

            Joe didn’t care to have a eulogy at his funeral and so there wasn’t any.  He wasn’t one to be coy about it.  If he’d secretly longed for someone to stand up over his coffin and talk about the lyricism of his work, he’d have said so, or left it an open question, and then one of us would have stood up and done it.  Probably me.  I could have said that he was an Italian artist of the Renaissance, a friend of Ghirlandaio, who was dropped into the Stearns County in the mid-twentieth century, one of God’s noble experiments.  I could have said a lot.  Maybe he wanted to spare me the trouble.  Probably he hoped to spare the congregation.  Having tried so hard all his life not to promote himself, he didn’t care to be wrapped in gold foil and sprinkled with canary feathers at the end.  And Joe was a Christian who tried to live by his faith and avoid loud pronouncements.  And so we skipped the ten-minute talk about his lyrical sensibility and cut to the postlude, Duke Ellington’s “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” and everybody left the church smiling and trooped down the road to the cemetery and laid him in the ground.

            He was an extraordinary fine artist who looked like a former boxer and talked like a carpenter.  A wiry guy with large,  muscular hands, a hank of black hair falling over his forehead, black hornrim glasses on a creased face, and a really majestic grin.  He was a great friend and a classy guy, elaborately kind, and nobody else could be charming the way Joe could.  He really knew how to bestow himself.

            I think of him as he was on a fall morning back around 1970, working in his old studio on the side of the hill, woods behind it, overlooking the meadow and the railroad tracks between Saint Joseph and Albany.  It’s ten o’clock in the morning and I just finished my shift at the radio station at Saint John’s.  I walk in, the studio smells of sawdust and wood fire, music is playing, a hot jazz band from the twenties.  Joe is bent over a wooden Christ on the cross propped up on a sawhorse, running his fingers over the face and chest, brushing away shavings and flecks of sawdust, squinting at the grain, worrying over it.  The piece looks finished to me, a stunning achievement, but to Joe it is a sick patient in a painful late stage of treatment.  A tiny crack on the left cheek is troublesome to him, and he feels that the nose is off and needs reshaping.  Meanwhile, the priest from the church that commissioned the figure is pressing Joe for a definite delivery date, the original deadline having passed some months before.  The priest is pressing him hard, wanting to schedule the dedication.  Joe is supposed to telephone him today–Joe groans at the thought.

            Joe put a lot of feeling into a groan.  He had a great repertoire of groans, with real gravel in them, and he always smiled when he groaned, as if savoring his own hopeless situation.  And he had plenty of hopeless situations to choose from.  “I am in the arts, you know,” he would say.  He liked that phrase.

            He had a wife and five children, was supporting his family by carving and sculpting and printmaking, most of it done on commission for churches whose fee, divided by the hours it took to produce work to Joe’s standard, made for something less than the minimum wage, but how could you ask for more, knowing that churches could buy poured-stone copies of the Virgins and Christs that their congregations might even prefer to Joe’s?

            So I started calling him Sisyphus, after the myth of the man condemned to eternally roll a stone up the hill and see it come rolling back down.  Then I called him Josysphus.  “Almost got that rock where I want it now,” he’d say.  “Any day, it’ll be done.”  It was comical to him and me that my work was transient and got attention, and that his work, as he put it, would last forever but nobody would notice it.

            On this fall morning, with the priest looming ahead of him, he invited me up to sit in his loft and have a cup of coffee.  The loft was small, like the bridge of a ship, with a bunk, a work table, a filing chest, and shelves.  He was very neat about his clutter, his tape and record collection, his tools, little carvings, postcards, clippings.  I sit on the bunk, drinking coffee, and I give him a couple stories of mine to read–he was a very generous reader, a great enthusiast about his friends’ work–and he brings out a few of his prints to show me: Peter strangling the cock that crowed when Peter betrayed Jesus, Adam and Eve tiptoeing from the Garden under the weary, patient gaze of God the Father, a man in a suit grabbed by a giant hand in the dark.  Joe did not portray jubilation, as a rule, or bliss and contentment.  Joe didn’t do angels.  His specialty was the dignity of suffering, which he himself was acquainted with and which was the source of his humor.

            I talked to him on the phone a few days before he died.  He was weak but still himself.  He took the phone and said hello.  I said, “Saint Joseph–“ and he said, “Not yet.”  And then his voice drifted away and he handed the phone to his son and faded into merciful unconsciousness.

            But on this fall morning, he is leaning back in his chair, postponing the conversation with the priest, listening to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver kick up their heels, and the music naturally reminds him of his hometown Chicago, about which he told so many stories.  He was the best one I ever knew to tell a story.  One night at Fred and Rosemary Petters’ house, he told an epic tale about going to confession at his parish church in Chicago, which had a high altar so magnificent and high that stairs had to be rolled in for the priest to climb up to open the door of the ark that contained the Host, though the story also included his Grandpa the inventor and his friend Buddy and his eccentric Aunt Margaret, who gradually filled up the rooms of her house with unopened merchandise from Marshall Field’s and died on a stack of boxes and newspapers, her face a few inches from the ceiling.  The story took about an hour to tell and consisted of three small scenes with elaborate backdrops and all of us sat weeping with laughter, and on the way home I realized that it could not be summarized or duplicated, it had no frame, it was pure abstract comedy.  Also, we’d had quite a bit to drink.

            On this fall morning, though, the music reminds him of the Chicago cornetist Muggsy Spanier, who was sort of foster father to Joe, and that leads to W. C. Fields, the notorious hater of small children, and that leads to a story I tell on myself, about driving up my driveway with my two-year-old son standing on the front seat next to me and gunning the engine to try to make it through a snowbank, the dumbest think I ever did as a father, and this reminds Joe of a true story about himself, which I wrote down later and which went something like this: 

            The circus came to the ballpark in Saint Joseph, one of those little tent circuses that you walk into and discover that the woman who sold you your ticket is also the bareback rider and has a dog act, and on the way out the lion-tamer is selling cotton candy and offering tickets for twenty-five cents to go into another tent and see the tattooed lady, who, he suggests, is not wearing much of anything, and she turns out to be the bareback rider and has three tattoos and is dressed in a bathing suit.

            Anyways, that kind of circus, not the kind you run away to join.  The kind you might be born into.  But my kids thought this was the last word in entertainment, to sit on the top row of the bleachers under the canvas and jump down to the ground and run around under the bleachers and throw popcorn at each other.

            The day after we saw the circus, the kids and I drove to town in our old VW to get groceries.  It was like a clown car with four of them in it and the back seat full of groceries.  They were still talking about the circus and recalling some of the acts when we drove by the ballpark and there, staked in the middle of the field was the elephant, Mazumbo.  This was a one-elephant circus and she was it.  The kids wanted to go feed her.  They begged me, “Please, oh please, please, please, please, please, please can we?  This would be the neatest thing.  We’ve got peanuts.” 

            Well, we did have peanuts.  Two big bags of them.  I said, “All right, but you stay in the car.  Nobody gets out of the care.”  And I drove onto the ballfield and up to the elephant.  And Eric rolled down the window and stuck out a handful of peanuts and Mazumbo swung her trunk over and picked them up and put them in her mouth.  Then it was Brian’s turn to feed her.  And Laurie, and Duke.  By the time they got through a bag of peanuts, Mazumbo had quite a bit of her trunk inside the car, feeling around for provisions.  It made me nervous, this gigantic, long, bristly think snaking around inside the VW and brushing the back of my neck and snuffling around the kids, especially since the tip of Mazumbo’s trunk looked like Mazumbo had a bad cold.  But the kids, of course, were delighted.  Utterly beside themselves.  They were squealing and sticking fistfuls of peanuts in her trunk, of which almost the whole trunk seemed to be in the car.  And when we ran out of peanuts, we opened up a pack of Oreos and some candy bars and potato chips.  I was trying to keep calm, be the master dad, the old hand with elephants, and I turned and fished around in the grocery sack for the vegetables and I felt the car lift slightly and then this large, cold thing on my face and I jumped and banged my head on the ceiling and slipped the care into reverse and backed up, slowly, because Mazumbo was reluctant to let go of us.  We inched back and I could hear the ridges on the trunk slide across the window frame, bonk, bonk, bonk, bonk, bonk, and the kids were laughing all the way home, and I was imagining the story in the newspaper, “Family of 6 Perish in Circus Mishap; Father Parked Car Next to Elephant.” 

            I miss listening to Joe talk.  You get a conversation going with someone that you really enjoy and then they go and die on you.  But then I come across the work he left behind, such as Adam Waiting in the Garden, which hangs over my desk, the First Man in abject boredom waiting for the First Woman, her magnificent haunches visible through a window, to finish her ablutions and do her toilet, and Joe is still here.  He was in the arts, you know, and here’s proof of it.

Reprinted with the permission of the Liturgical Press, the Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, from Divine Favor: The Art of Joseph O'Connell. Editor, Colman O'Connell. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, c1999.  CSB, SJU and SJP Libraries Oversize N 6537.O265 D58 1999.