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Garrison Keillor


He Was in the Arts, You Know

A tribute to sculptor Joseph O'Connell.

The cover of the book, illustrated with a detail from a sculpture, said Divine Favor: The Art of Joseph O'Connell. I had never heard of Joseph O'Connell (1927-1995, the copyright page said), but by the time I had finished turning the pages, I could hardly wait to show the book to my wife, Wendy, and plan a pilgrimage to see some of O'Connell's work in person. We owe a debt of gratitude to the publisher, Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minnesota, for this labor of love. In addition to the tribute by Garrison Keillor, which follows below, the volume includes a memoir of O'Connell by the late J. F. Powers and an assortment of brief reflections on O'Connell's art, primarily sculpture but also printmaking.

Joe didn't care to have a eulogy at his funeral and so there wasn't any. He wasn't one to be coy about it. If he'd secretly longed for someone to stand up over his coffin and talk about the lyricism of his work, he'd have said so, or left it an open question, and then one of us would have stood up and done it. Probably me. I could have said that he was an Italian artist of the Renaissance, a friend of Ghirlandaio, who was dropped into Stearns County in the mid-twentieth century, one of God's noble experiments. I could have said a lot. Maybe he wanted to spare me the trouble. Probably he hoped to spare the congregation. Having tried so hard all his life not to promote himself, he didn't care to be wrapped in gold foil and sprinkled with canary feathers at the end. And Joe was a Christian who tried to live by his faith and avoid large pronouncements. And so we skipped the ten-minute talk about his lyrical sensibility and cut to the postlude, Duke Ellington's "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," and everybody left the church smiling and trooped down the road to the cemetery and laid him in the ground.

He was an extraordinarily fine artist who looked like a former boxer and talked like a carpenter. A wiry guy with large, muscular hands, a hank of black hair falling ...

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