A chip off the old Joe

SJU student cataloging his grandfather’s work

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February 24, 2012

By Mike Killeen

The late Joe O'Connell

The first few times he walked around the College of Saint Benedict campus, Brian Thavis would stop in his tracks when he saw Joe O'Connell's artwork.

He admired O'Connell's "Madonna and Child" in Mary Commons, and the six prints that hang in the fireside lounge of Clemens Library. It is hard to miss the impressive "Petters Door" in the lobby of the Benedicta Arts Center, or the sculptures in the Gathering Space of Saint Benedict's Monastery Chapel.

"It would be like, 'Wow, this is right here. I wonder how many people actually stop and look at this?' " said Thavis, a first-year student at Saint John's University. "After a while, you kind of get used to it. Every now and then, I still make a point to stop and look at his work."

Thavis might also have said, "That's my grandfather's work."

These days, Thavis is admiring more than his grandfather's art. He is helping catalog items in the Joe O'Connell Collection at CSB Archives. There are thousands of items cataloged in the collection, including books, documents, photos, slides, molds, plates, sketches and tools.

"I'm privileged to do this," Thavis said. "I really see (the job) as a privilege, because not only am I here and making money and doing a job, but I'm learning about history, about art history, about an artist who is my grandfather and his work."

O'Connell was a sculptor, print maker, photographer, artist-in-residence and teacher at CSB and SJU from 1962 until his death in 1995 (he taught for two years at SJU in the 1950s and from 1957-62).

"He (O'Connell) created his own style, and then he didn't depart from that just because there were new trends," said S. Colman O'Connell, OSB, former president of CSB and senior development officer for Institutional Advancement at CSB. "It (his style) kept developing into more complex things."

While she was president, O'Connell - no relation to the artist - often took guests to see Joe O'Connell at work in his studio courtyard of the BAC.

"In my humble opinion - and I hope this isn't an insult to all the other (artists who work on campus) - he's the best we've ever had," added O'Connell, who edited a book on Joe O'Connell's work, "Divine Favor: The Art of Joseph O'Connell," which included essays from J.F. Powers and Garrison Keillor.

Thavis' recollections of his grandfather are few. Fortunately for him, his parents, Lauren (a CSB graduate) and John (an SJU graduate who recently retired from covering the Vatican as the bureau chief for Catholic News Service) paid yearly visits to the O'Connell home in Collegeville.

It was during those visits that Brian and his siblings annually renewed friendships with the children of Peggy Landwehr Roske, CSB and SJU archivist, who lived just up the road. Her husband, Michael, grew up as a neighbor to the O'Connell family.

"When I found out Brian was going to come to school here, a little light bulb went off in my head - Brian could work on Joe's collection," Roske said.

"One of the things I especially wanted to have him do was identify Joe's photos," Roske said. "He can ask his mom or grandma about who is in a picture. He whipped out his cell phone and took pictures of a whole bunch of pictures that needed details, took them home and showed them to his mom and grandma, and found out a little more about them.

"It's been wonderful to have him doing that. And, I think it has been fun for him as well," Roske added.

"It's definitely a neat thing to see. I feel like I missed out on a lot of this stuff, because I was so young and I don't remember," said Thavis, who was 4 years old when his grandfather died. "In a certain way, I'm kind of atoning for not knowing these people, not knowing this stuff in the first place."

One of the things Thavis discovered about his grandfather was that he was a prolific photographer.

"He loved taking pictures. I confirmed that with my mom. He would go out and drive down to the Twin Cities and just take pictures. When I got here, I saw there were hundreds of pictures from the 1970s that he took of anything, or pictures of people he found interesting," Thavis said. "I didn't know that at all."

Roske noted that faculty in the CSB/SJU art department bring students to the collection to give them an introduction to O'Connell's work. "They look at his sketch books, and then go around campus and look at the sculptures that resulted from his initial sketches," Roske said.

"I think it's relatively rare for an artist's life and work to be as carefully documented as we have done with Joe," Roske said. "Joe was famous, but not world-wide or nationally. He certainly had lots of admirers in Minnesota and elsewhere, but it's a name that not everybody would recognize.

"There is a treasure trove of information here, especially for anyone who's interested in Joe and his art. It would be wonderful to have people come down and sink their teeth into the collection and really use it," said Roske, adding she would love to see someone use the collection for a master's thesis.