WRITING #9 Watching Joe Work; There are No Mistakes, Just Design Changes

Photo Credit: Fredric Petters / Collegeville MN Liturgical Press

Joe requested no eulogy, no English Walnut casket, just a Basswood coffin like the St. John’s monks were buried in. (The monastery woodshop would make that coffin for Joe when the time came). That was Joe, a prolific, yet humble stone carver; a dirt-under-the-fingernails artist with a heart of gold and the hands of laborer. Joe dodged the limelight and shameless self-promotion. And had he been a child of today’s social media landscape, scrollers would not see a tropical island selfie come across the digital airwaves. No, Joe just worked, and cared deeply about his people. His marketing publicity was evident through raw talent and the people that loved him.

St. John’s University had an Artist-in-Residence program. During my collegiate chapter, sculptor Joe O’Connell held that position. A resident artist’s gig description ? … show up at campus each day, make work, be “available” to curious art students and perhaps teach a class on occasion. What sets them apart from full-time art faculty, charged with classroom teaching, was the Resident’s role to lead by example; to demonstrate the day-to-day reality of a working artist.

Photo Credit: Fredric Petters / Collegeville MN Liturgical Press

“He was an extraordinary fine artist, who looked like a former boxer and talked like a carpenter — Garrison Keillor, National Public Radio

On my drawing studio days, I would enter the art building hallway, listening for the hammer-hitting chisel taps of iron hitting limestone, and peer into Joe’s Studio to see what he was carving. Most often, it was a large commission for a church or institution. His concepts and subject matter elevated the outcasts, the forgotten, and the poor into compelling visual form. He conveyed the spirit of humanity through abstracted compositions of stylized, emotional expression. Watching Joe work made me want to be a sculptor.

Photo Credit: Fredric Petters / Collegeville Liturgical Press

With one semester of school remaining, I felt it imperative to ask Joe if I could do a “once in a life-time” independent studio credit carving stone in the corner of his studio. With registration just days away, I walked up to his always open, studio door hoping for a signature. But today I did not hear the familiar rhythm of hammer and chisel; rather, the cool sounds of jazz emanating from the studio. Joe loved jazz. His dusty tape deck and boxy speakers were perched atop of the tool chest and a stack of cassette tapes sat alongside the files and rasps. In the corner, opposite of the door, was a low-slung, well-worn leather chair, a few aging rips in the seat and back. There sat Joe, staring at his work in progress. If you didn’t hear tools chattering, you could bet Joe, head covered in black knit stocking cap, was slouched in that very chair, reflecting on the work in front of him. His self-critiques often included deep sighs, questioning grumbles, and a boyish, shy grin.

“What if you make a mistake ? (stone carving looked like a terribly irreversible process to me)…” I don’t make mistakes.” said Joe, “just design changes.” ( like jazz improv, no mistakes, just creative alterations) — Mary Schaffer, “Divine Favor, the Art of Joseph O’Connell”

Maybe it was my desperate looking eyes, or the offer to drive my truck two hours to the quarry and get limestone. Most likely, it was because his daughter dated my best friend, but Joe said “well, O.K.” and I was on my way to what would be a life-long pursuit of sculpture. The 12-week semester flew by. I got my hands dirty, and learned some skills, no mind-blowing masterpieces to speak of. More importantly, I watched Joe work. And I recall those moments far more than any lecture, assignment or readings.

Several years after graduation, I attended what would be Joe’s final exhibition; his health was declining. With the gallery full of wine drinkers, collectors and critics, one would expect to see the featured artist basking in front of his works, pontificating art-speak jargon to his admirers. Not Joe. In his typical loving human-ness, Joe spent the evening in the foyer, hunched over, holding the hands of his young grand-daughter, dancing to the live saxophone player, blowing cool jazz in the background.

“creative introverts have an inexhaustible charm within” — Carl Jung

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