A Tribute to Joe O’Connell – The Independent 1995

The following appeared in the CSB newspaper, The Independent, October 19, 1995, vol. 9, no. 3,  p. 15.

Joe O'Connell  

Artist-in-residence Joseph O’Connell, who is remembered as being a real, honest-to-goodness Christian gentleman,” and “uncompromising” in his art, died of cancer Oct. 7 at his home.

A Tribute to the Artist: The Life, Art and Influence of Joe O’Connell

by Jenny White and Nora McRaith
Independent editorial staff and staff writer

Of all the people and places given the opportunity to know Joe O’Connell and his art, perhaps none was more affected by his recent death than the community of the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

O’Connell was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in January. He died Oct. 7 at 68 from that disease.

He is survived by his wife, Joann “Jody”; three sons, Tom, Eric and Brian; and two daughters, Lauren Thavis and Julianne O’Connell.

Born Joseph John O’Connell in 1927 to a craftsman and vocational school headmaster and his wife in Chicago, Joe O’Connell touched many places and many people with art in his lifetime.

Throughout his early years in Chicago, O’Connell spent time as an apprentice typesetter, a cab driver and an office worker. He also dabbled as a jazz saxophonist

During World War II he enlisted in the U.S. Air Corps.

Afterward, he attended night school and enrolled in some classes at the University of Illinois, the American Academy of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

From the moment in 1954 when O’Connell was first offered a teaching position at SJU, the artist remained a vital part of the campuses’ art department. His role at the schools ranged from instructor, to mentor, to artist-in-residence.

O’Connell was hired by CSB in 1987 to play his most current role for the campuses as artist-in-residence.

O’Connell, although always submerged in his work, still managed during his years on campus to have a profound influence on the lives of those who shared the campus with him.

Not only art faculty and students appreciated the presence of O’Connell, but people from all walks of life sensed the commitment, talent and passion of the artist

Karen Mrja, director of fine arts at CSB, feels that O’Connell served as a kind of mentor for many people on the two campuses, including herself.

It is my hope that everyone will, at least once in their lives, have someone like Joe as a mentor, teacher, colleague or friend,” Mrja said. “Whatever heaven is or might be, I am certain of one thing on earth. Since 1977, when I first met Joe, I have been touched by an angel.

“In addition to his unique artistry the two things I will remember most about Joseph O’Connell are his humanity and sense of humor. He was truly one of the most sensitive, generous and receptive people it will ever be my privilege to know. The dignity with which he approached his work, his family, his friends and life serve as an example to all of us,” Mrja said.

Mrja’s admiration was echoed by many.

“It is realty touching to see the wide range of people that he affected throughout his lifetime,” said Sarah Egbers, a CSB junior theater major.

O’Connell was a familiar presence to theater and music majors as well as art majors, because of the vast amount of time he spent at work at the Benedicta Arts Center.

“I am going to miss him. He always remembered everybody’s name and always said ‘Hi,'” said CSB senior theater major Constance Fernholtz. “You could always tell when he was around (the BAC] because you could see the dusty footprints leading to and from where he was working.”

Theater faculty member Tom Darnell will remember both the artist and his artistry.

“One of the things I learned from him was the absolute attention to detail in his work. He was uncompromising in the kind of subtlety of his visual questions. Of course, Joe would read this quote and say, ‘It two of the things that I respect a lot,” artwork.” sounds like art speak!’,” Darnell said.

Christ is King by O'Connell An example of this attention to detail was O’Connell’s most recent work, “Christ the King.”

The completion of the 13-ton limestone sculpture was celebrated by several hundred of O’Connell’s friends and admirers at the BAC Aug. 12.

The figure now stands in Christ the King Catholic Community in Las Vegas, Nev.

In the Sept 1995 issue of The St. Cloud Unabridged, the work is described as “a vivid depiction of the family of mankind in need of a helping hand.”

In carved lettering at the top of the right panel O’Connell quoted Bible verse 25 of Matthew 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.”

Although O’Connell never referred to himself as an especially religious person, the people who knew him best saw religious values in his work and his life.

“He’s a fine example of what I’d call a real, honest-to-goodness Christian gentleman. His sincerity and reverence…for people, materials…are two of the things that I respect a lot,” said Dennis Frandrup, OSB, professor of ceramics and jewelry at CSB/SJU in the Oct. 15 issue of the St. Cloud Times.

Gordon Goetemann, chair of the CSB/SJU art department, respected O’Connell as much.

“He is universally admired for living according to the values that he professes,” Goetemann said in the recent St. Cloud Unabridged article.

“And he is loved because there’s complete consistency between what he says and what he does. He’s genuinely admirable.”

O’Connell also established a rapport with art students as well as faculty. Kelly Munson, who has worked in the ceramics studio with O’Connell since her first year at CSB, will remember O’Connell’s subtle and modest attitude toward his art.

He was once quoted as saying, “Every artist that’s born should have their tongues disconnected at age 3. Art should be seen and the artist not heard because most of us make ridiculous statements.”

“He wouldn’t talk about his art unless he was asked,” Munson said. “He wasn’t very showy about his artwork.”

Yet Munson also said that O’Connell was always willing to talk about his sculptures in detail, if he felt it would help the student

Munson said that O’Connell was a constant presence in the studio, at all hours. He would listen to his music and work on his sculpture.

“His absence is very noticeable. The jazz music would be playing and he would be there later than I would,” Munson said. “He came in even when he was in a lot of pain.”

CSB/SJU professor of English Mike Opitz also noted a familiarity about O’Connell.

“One of the things I loved about Joe was his accessibility. You could always go in and find him on a tractor seat listening to jazz or a Twins game and strike up a conversation,” Opitz said. “He was an inspiration.”

Although O’Connell s physical presence at CSB/SJU is gone, evidence of his spirit will still pervade the two campuses in the form of the sculptures he left behind.

His spirit lingers in the welded steel and walnut crucifix and the sculpture of St. Michael in the St. John’s Abbey Church, the-statue of St. Benedict in the BAC auditorium lobby, and the sculpture representing the Benedictine tradition in the gathering space of the Sacred Heart Chapel, among others.

Reprinted from the CSB newspaper, The Independent, October 19, 1995, vol. 9, no. 3, p. 15.