Muskingum e-News: Feature Story
The Art of Being a Muskie: CREATIVITY FROM COLLABORATION
Dennis O'Neil '69
“Muskingum was the beginning of my career as an artist. It is a great place to launch your life.”
Dennis O’Neil credits the foundation of his distinguished career to his Muskingum experience and to his time as editor of the 1968 Muscoljuan.
“It’s been over 40 years since [I was editor], and it’s still an important time for me,” said Dennis. “I tried to show the spirit of the place, the creative sides of the students and the special times we all shared. Making art is all about communicating, regardless of the medium. I felt that with the yearbook I succeeded.”
Today, Dennis is regarded as an innovator in the world of collaborative printmaking and is “renowned for his pioneering work that is light years beyond traditional screenprinting boundaries,” according to Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints for the Library of Congress. He directs the internationally-renowned Hand Print Workshop International and is Chair of the Fine Arts Department at the Corcoran College of Art + Design.
At Muskingum, Dennis poured so much of himself into his work as Muscoljuan editor that he failed his senior painting class and had to return for a fifth year in order to graduate. The cloud had a silver lining. He took a printmaking class and “I knew from the first minute I made an etching that this was for me. I had found myself as an artist and never looked back.”
Dennis returned to his hometown of Washington, DC and opened an etching studio with equipment that Muskingum had sold to him. Around 1984, everything changed. “I needed fresh challenges,” he said. “I invited other artists to collaborate, I gave up etching and devoted myself to screen printing, I switched to non-toxic water-based inks. I was becoming a collaborative artist.”
Collaboration became central to Dennis’s art. “Most printmaking happens in shared facilities,” he says. “Most people can’t afford their own equipment, so they tend to share resources, both equipment and studio space. For this reason, the art tends to be a more social experience than, for example, painting. My work and my knowledge have advanced immensely because of the challenges presented by working with others. I could never have challenged myself this way on my own.”
In 1987, he was invited to establish the first printmaking course at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. The trajectory of his career changed even more profoundly when he traveled to Moscow two years later at the invitation of a gallery that specialized in Russian art. In 1991, he established the Moscow Studio, a collaborative printmaking studio that was born in the midst of the collapse of the Soviet Union and which became deeply influential in helping Russian artists “re-form connections with their past not just for themselves but for their fellow citizens as well.” Dennis directed the Moscow Studio until 1996, when he turned it over to his Russian partner and returned to Washington full-time.
Hand Print Workshop International is at the forefront of contemporary screenprinting techniques and is a collaborative host for leading artists from the former Soviet Union and around the world. Education is a cornerstone of its philosophy, offering student internships and a visiting artist in schools program.
Dennis is writing a book, Process and Alchemy, a memoir beginning with his time in Moscow. Chapters of the book will be published on his website.
A note about screenprinting: Although screenprinting is known popularly and commercially for producing t-shirts and similar items, it has a long and distinguished history as an art form of the highest caliber. Dennis O’Neil writes, "Printmaking in many forms has been around for centuries. Artists like Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt created phenomenal works through etching and engraving. Despite this, it has mostly been associated with craft and considered a reproductive art. Screenprinting developed as an art form mostly in the past four decades, thanks in large part to Andy Warhol in the Pop Art era. The simplicity, urgency and adaptability of his work to many different ideas forced the issue of the acceptance of the medium.”
“Screenprinting is the perfect medium for our times,” he continues. “Today’s artists work in more media than they ever have before. For example, they may express their ideas in photography and video as well as painting or sculpture. Screenprinting is the most adaptable printmaking medium. It can borrow and appropriate imagery with other media such as photography, sculpture and painting - and combine them in ways that are unique.”
FUN FACT QUIZ ANSWER
When did the instruction of women officially begin at Muskingum? 1851, according to A History of Muskingum College by Emeritus Professor of History William L. Fisk.