The Hands of Joseph O'Connell

Although in the minds of many American Catholics, liturgical art of the post-war periodespecially the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’sdoes not enjoy great esteem, those decades did produce their share of artists whose works have continued to move and inspire worshipers. One such artist was Joseph O’Connell (1927-95), the subject of a new commemorative volume (Divine Favor: The Art of Joseph O’Connell, edited by Colman O’Connell, O.S.B, Liturgical Press, 1999), an album of black-and-white photographs with tributes, reminiscences and meditations on individual works by friends and admirers, including Garrison Keillor and the recently deceased J. F. Powers. A Chicagoan by birth and a Midwesterner all his life, O’Connell is not widely known outside his home region. (His principal patrons were the Benedictines of Collegeville and St. Joseph, Minn.) But the originality, technical skill and expressive power of his best work deserve recognition and appreciation by a wider public.

The book’s notes mention only Eric Gill and Henry Moore as major influences on O’Connell; in fact, despite their completely contemporary, postwar "liturgical reform" flavor, many of his works have much in common with the exuberant tastes of the 17th-century Catholic Baroque: energetically dynamic compositions; big, bold, passionate, confrontational emotion; and expert craftsmanship aimed at achieving virtuoso effects of chiaroscuro, gesture and movement in space.

Primarily a sculptor, O’Connell produced over the decades numerous works in a prodigiously wide variety of styles in stone, wood and metal. But amid the diversity of style, media and genre, a characteristic leitmotif, a trademark of sorts, is discernible: human hands.

Hands play animportant role in his workoversized, powerfully expressive hands, capable of communicating the entire emotional charge of the figure in question, if not, indeed, of the complete work itself. Hands that invite, hands that repel; hands that embrace, hands that reject; hands that reveal, hands that hide; angry hands, joyful hands, consoling hands, protecting handsall of these are the hands of Joseph O’Connell.

[Sorry, in the printed version, this article included five photographs, which are not reproduced here.]

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Greg Hicks as "Richard III" (photo: Alex Brenner)
It would be fascinating were the producers able to arrange a quick transfer to a venue somewhere near the White House.
David StewartMay 26, 2017
In the hyper-curated, beautiful world that Dev lives in, a scene that conveys the touching, ugly stubbornness of marriage seems totally impossible.
Eloise BlondiauMay 26, 2017
This image released by the Minya governorate media office shows bodies of victims killed when gunmen stormed a bus in Minya, Egypt, Friday, May 26, 2017 (Minya Governorate Media office via AP).
The attack in central Egypt today killed at least 26 people, including children aged 2 to 4, and wounded 25 others.
Gerard O'ConnellMay 26, 2017
The data and facts are clear: If you care about working families and sound economic policy, SNAP is the program for you.
Meghan J. ClarkMay 26, 2017