St Paul Pioneer Press Obituary

The following appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 1995, p. C 5B.

This article is reprinted with permission. No further reproduction, electronic or otherwise, may be created or used without the consent of the Pioneer Press.

Artist Joseph O’Connell dies; was instructor at St. Cloud area colleges

by Wayne Wangstad

In 1951, Joseph O’Connell was a World War II veteran who had quit high school after spending three years as a freshman because of learning difficulties. He was driving a taxicab.

But O’Connell had something that went beyond a high school, or even a college, diploma – talent. It was so powerful that it eventually carried him to St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph.

When O’Connell, 68, the man with learning disabilities, died Saturday at his home in Collegeville, he had been a teacher or artist-in-residence at the two colleges for more than 30 years.

A native of Chicago, O’Connell’s mother died during his birth and he was raised by his father, a vocational teacher and master craftsman, and his grandfather, an engineer and inventor who came up with the idea of the party line, according to Connie Cross, public affairs director for the College of St. Benedict.

“I was just not a student … and the worst thing in my life was school,” O’Connell said in an interview in the College of St. Benedict’s alumni magazine. “I’m very slow thinking and have a short memory and never got past the freshman year after three years in high school.”

With World War II drawing to a close, O’Connell joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and served in the Philippines and Okinawa. After his discharge, he returned to Chicago to work in a steel factory and an uncle’s printing company.

Art was a magnet for O’Connell, and he entered the University of Illinois art school. He was kicked out when school officials discovered he lacked a high school diploma. There also was a short stint at the American Academy of Art.

While driving a cab in 1951, O’Connell started studying art. He was drawing and started his first carving – a talent which, along with sculpting and print making, would make up his professional life for years to come.

“I’ve always said and believe that every artist that’s born should have their tongues disconnected at age 3,” O’Connell remarked in the magazine interview. “Art should be seen and the artist not heard, because most of us make ridiculous statements.'”

At Notre Dame University in 1953, O’Connell met the Rev. Cloud Meinberg, a monk who had founded the St. John’s University Art Department. He offered O’Connell a teaching post at St. John’s, but O’Connell refused, saying he not only was not qualified, but could not teach.

In need of $500 for hospital bills for the delivery of his first son, O’Connell reconsidered, received an advance and moved to Collegeville, where he taught for two years.

O’Connell taught at Sienna Heights College in Adrian, Mich., in 1956, and returned to Collegeville in 1957. He returned to St. John’s in 1957, became artist-in-residence at the College of St. Benedict in 1962, and had been a faculty member or artist-in-residence at the two colleges ever since.

Starting in 1952, O’Connell used wood, metal and stone to create more than 100 pieces, many of them commissioned by churches and monasteries throughout the United States. Noted works include the carved wooden church doors at St. Martin’s Abbey in Lacey, Wash.; mahogany-and-steel panels commissioned by the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis; a three-figure bronze work depicting the family, commissioned by the American Dental Association and a limestone Angel Guardian group for a Chicago orphanage.

Several of his major sculptures are in the St. Cloud area, including St. Benedict’s Convent and St. John’s University, and the St. Augustine Church in St. Cloud and Sacred Heart Church in Sauk Rapids.

O’Connell spent his last five years sculpting a 13-ton triptych commissioned by Christ the King Catholic Community in Las Vegas, which he completed last summer. The center and tallest sculpture of the work depicts Christ the King arriving in Jerusalem on a donkey. Two flanking panels depict the human condition.

O’Connell is survived by his wife, Joann; children Thomas of St. Cloud; Lauren Thavis of Rome; Eric of Champlin, Minn.; Brian of New Orleans, and Julianne of St. Paul; six grandchildren, a brother and three sisters.

Services will be at 3 p.m. today at the St. John’s Abbey-University Church.