Life, death, the heavens, and beyond: artist Joseph O’Connell addresses them all while redefining what it means to be a sculptor in the 21st century. O’Connell has created works for public spaces all over the world, including the world’s largest acrylic sculpture and human-powered kinetic sculpture. Taking an anthropological stance, often studying and musing on a site for years, O’Connell sifts through the history, stories, and geology of a site to create works that range from sleek and modern to archetypal, poetic, and mystical.
Both populist and intellectual, he is the thinking person’s public artist. In 1995 he founded Creative Machines, one of the world’s largest design and fabrication studios headed by a single artist. Walking throughout the eight-acre space brings out a childlike sense of wonderment and awe at the breadth of ideas taking shape before your very eyes. This is where he and his team elevate notions of public art and sculpture, creating new monuments, memorials, and concepts for what O’Connell calls art for the “Fifth Space.”
I caught up with O’Connell at his studio on the edge of Tucson where a dizzying array of projects are coming together: sculptures rooted in optics, new forms of physical interactivity, a sculpture for NASA, even entire urban parks.
Hilary Stunda: You began your career with some gallery and museum shows—and your studio is filled with experiments and pieces that would be at home in a gallery—yet you turned to public art and didn’t look back.
Joseph O’Connell: Really good public art is harder than gallery art because it can’t lean so hard on the framing, the halogen lights, the self-selection of an audience. And yet if we’re honest, the most iconic pieces of public art, like Michelangelo’s David, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, or even Cloud Gate have developed a meaning that is different from what the artist intended. The meaning of a public art piece is beyond the artist’s control.
HS: What were your first artistic impulses?
JO: My mother is an artist and my father a mathematician and maker. My grandfather had been friends with Edison’s youngest son and we lived close to Edison’s workshop. Our house was filled with music, piles of colorful fabric, old lab books from Edison, disassembled machines, mathematics, watercolors, clay, books piled high. I grew up in a magical world where there was no distinction between art and other kinds of making. One minute my sisters and I were painting on the floor, the next minute the whole family was operating a maze of ropes to guide the path of a tree that had to be removed, with everyone grabbing the ropes and pulling.
HS: “Everyone pulling on the ropes.” I like that image.
JO: It’s a good way to describe the cooperative and super-creative family environment I grew up in, and that’s what I try to create in my 30-person studio today.
HS: It planted the seed for creating monumental works of art.
JO: I was making larger and larger projects obsessively in my parents’ garage, yet I didn’t think of myself as an artist. I studied at four universities—maxing out the courses they would let me take, and auditing anthropology, history, literature, philosophy, political economy, comparative religion, as well as physics and statistics.
HS: In the midst of all your intellectual pursuits, where did you put all that creativity?
JO: While I was immersed in graduate seminars at Princeton and Chicago, I was also taking long solo bike trips, sleeping under bridges with fellow travelers, staying with unusual inventors and artists living at the edges of cities—always dipping in and out of civilization. Lots of seeds were planted and still remain—things people said that I just keep turning over and over, notebooks filled with sketches—waiting for the right moment to sprout.
HS: What are your influences?
JO: The first was Edison, through my grandfather and later through years spent with Edison’s former foreman who passed on a vision of how to assemble a creative team. George Rhoads helped me think through what it means to be an artist in service of people’s stories and how to feel good about making work that is popular. I’m very conscious of working in the idiom of Calder, Serra, and di Suvero. It must have been exciting to leave the rivets and welds exposed and call it sculpture. There’s a lot of life left in that tradition and ways it can be brought forward that haven’t been explored.
HS: How does your art do this?
JO: I’ve started with the human-driven kinetic sculptures and a new group where steel is moving huge dichroic pieces; basically people wrestling with steel to guide light. These sculptures also push back, giving people a bit of what it feels like to be a sculptor themselves.
HS: Historically, what artworks and civilizations inspire you?
JO: I’m especially drawn to eras where amazing machines were made with great artistry and these had huge emotional resonance with people. The age of sailing ships, the space age, the age of siege weapons, and especially the scientific revolutions in every culture, each with their own wonderful machines of creation and discovery.
HS: When you approach a new commission, are you guided by a set of principles?
JO: Number one, it has to be beautiful and compelling to people who don’t know anything about it. After that, it needs to work on multiple levels. There has to be a sense of mystery. But not a mystery that you artificially build into it. The mystery of the art comes from the fact that it is mirroring something deeply true—and the truth is a complex and mysterious thing that can be seen from many angles.
HS: How does each new concept begin for you?
JO: I start with my own perceptions of a space but also look at it through other peoples’ experiences. Is there a need to have something to gather around? That’s where some familiarity with anthropology and just plain people-watching comes in. I watch people’s eyes to see where they land, I notice how groups of people move through a space, overhear what they say to each other.
HS: Why large-scale works of art? You have created the world’s largest human-powered kinetic sculpture. It lets people move 14,000 pounds of steel.
JO: Yes, Chasing the Stars (2021). Large interactive works are about the body—and that’s especially important when we live in a world of screens. The kinetic pieces I want to build are about the body being able to move giant objects and feel the world push back. My point of departure started with sailing ships. A sailing ship is a machine made from materials that had been available for millennia, yet put together in a particular way and used by people to wrestle with forces of wind and currents far greater than their own. With these objects people could sail beyond the edge of the known world. That feeling of using a machine to wrestle with a world bigger than oneself inspired the work.
HS: When you say your art is driven by science, can you give some details?
JO: When I was working to develop the concept of Wings Over Water (2016), I watched a lot of videos of birds in flight. I created an abstraction of the movement of a bird’s wing through mechanical means—through a rotating helix connected to the wing through pushrods. I sketched the helix and the pushrods and realized I had essentially drawn a machine straight out of Houston’s industrial landscape. And from there, the concept just came together. I doubt I would have had the idea if I wasn’t familiar with physics and mathematics. It was really thrilling when a Houston resident said to me, “You have taken the industrial vernacular of pipelines and drilling rigs and raised it to high art.”
HS: What’s next in sculpture, either for you or for the field as a whole?
JO: One important strain will be the rediscovery of sculpture to serve civic goals. I don’t mean civic, in the sense of supporting any political party or the narrow goals of whatever regime is in power, but almost a design-led process of setting out to achieve certain emotional states in people to move them toward goals of community, tolerance, or their opposites. The notion of the tortured artist as a lone teller-of-truth-to-power is a 19th-century fantasy that ignores the broad sweep of most of art history. There will be greater recognition that art is collaborative—and hopefully some really provocative collaborations will happen.
HS: What are some of your recent collaborations?
JO: Some of my new projects are in collaboration with people who have strong voices outside the field of sculpture: Anneliese Bruner, a Tulsa massacre descendent whose forebear penned the eyewitness account that underpins all scholarship of the event; a Native American architect; a disabled veteran; and always poets—I’m drawn to poets. I’m searching for ways to reach beyond what sculpture typically does; my collaborators are searching for ways to reach beyond their own spheres. These collaborations are a way to create a new kind of power in public spaces.
HS: Can you talk about some of your current projects?
JO: I’m nearly complete with five permanent pieces that have very little of my own voice but are purely in service to social justice themes or purely responsive to groups of people I’ve come to know: Bends Towards Justice—an interactive piece for a historic part of Atlanta, an art piece at the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and an extensively researched art piece in service to veterans, first responders, and frontline Covid workers. In these pieces, I’ve tried to listen and use the extensive palette of materials I know to express exactly what those communities need most—whether in bronze, computer-controlled lighting, archival research turned into steel and projection, or stainless steel.
HS: You still apply for public calls, but more and more you’ve been sought out by clients who share your vision of a new type of public sculpture. What are some directions you’re exploring?
JO: I’m doing a lot of experimental work in the studio that I hope people may come around to in a few years. I’ve made a series of giant glass headpieces that express multiple personhood, I’m developing a kinetic sculpture that carves a new full-size stone monument each year—basically replacing false monuments with community-powered permanent new pieces. I’m prototyping architectural-size sculptures for stellar observation and infrasonic music in wilderness areas. I think of myself as a fine artist who happens to express myself mostly through public art. Sometimes I find myself waiting for the commissioned art world to catch up to what I’ve been doing.