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 an important 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.]