In addition to being an acclaimed and accomplished artist in the Omaha art scene, Bonnie O’Connell has been a professor of book arts at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for over 30 years.
Her “passionate” love affair with books began in her childhood, when she discovered how much she loved to read. “As a young girl, I was often happiest when I was reading,” O’Connell recalls. “One of my favorite places to go was the library.”
Bonnie O’Connell says she has always been drawn to the intricacies of language and the way her imagination could be engaged by a great writer.
“Also, I loved the physicality of books…the way they had their own beauty and tradition,” she says. “I became fascinated by letter forms and calligraphy and the way books were designed and presented.”
It was in college in the late ’60s that her appreciation for books eventually led her to consider the possibility of making them. So she switched her major from journalism to art, with a focus on design.
Today, this field of study is known collectively as “book arts,” and includes letterpress printing, typography, book design, bookbinding, and papermaking. At the time, her classes included lettering—which would be called calligraphy today—and letterpress printing.
“Once I started taking those classes, I was pretty much hooked,” O’Connell recalls. “I had decided this was what I wanted to do. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to do it.”
After graduating in 1969 and paying off student loans (which she says you could actually do in those days), Bonnie O’Connell moved to Chicago and went into advertising, where she did prep work for commercial printing. “Back then you didn’t design everything on the computer, so I worked with drafting tables and T-squares. I learned a lot,” she says, “but I was not very happy doing it.”
In 1971, at 25, O’Connell got married and the couple moved to Illinois. It was there that O’Connell met a University of Illinois professor who published poetry. “He offered me an apprenticeship with him,” she says. “Since I didn’t have a job and was newly relocated where I didn’t know anyone, it was a real stroke of good fortune.”
When her husband was accepted into the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the couple moved to Iowa City in 1972. “We bought a big farmhouse, which had plenty of room for a studio,” she says. “So I bought a press (it was relatively cheap, as letterpress printing was becoming obsolete) and some paper and started my own printing business.”
Over the next 12 years, Bonnie O’Connell published 23 collections of contemporary American poetry (about 150-200 copies per collection), doing all the typesetting and printing herself. “I couldn’t afford to pay employees,” she says.
“This type of printing is known as small press printing,” she explains. “It was small compared to commercial literary productions but big for press done by hand.” She also says that small press was the major way for poetry to get published in those days, unlike today when writers have multiple online publishing choices.
“Printing a writer’s poetry was a mutually beneficial arrangement,” O’Connell says. “The poet’s work would get published and circulated, and I was able to receive grants from organizations that supported the publication of contemporary poets.”
Eventually, O’Connell began tackling bigger print jobs, but when she started teaching at UNO in 1985, she phased back. “I couldn’t keep up that type of production, and I was also becoming more interested in other aspects of books, such as making paper,” she says. “I love the tactile qualities of paper, even though it’s incredibly difficult to make uniform sheets refined enough for small
O’Connell, who retired last May from her long and illustrious teaching career, says she is looking forward to having more time to devote to her own works of art. Her eclectic creations—which fill her office from floor to ceiling in an overwhelming display—include assemblages, collages, relief prints, and other unique art forms.
“I’m always searching for evocative materials to use in my work,” she says. “I’ve tapped the natural world as well as flea markets for all sorts of printed journals, postcards, talismanic objects, framing devices, and other unique and interesting items.” Recently, O’Connell’s work has become more “activist” in theme, stemming from her desire to make a statement. She also produces art for what’s known as portfolio exchanges, where printmakers collectively produce a grouping of work that becomes the basis for an exhibition.
For now, O’Connell is facing the daunting challenge of moving her many years of accumulated materials, prints, 2,000-plus books, supplies, etc. into a home studio that is being renovated to hold it all. She says the next year will be one of transition after teaching for so long, but she will continue to create and exhibit the art that has been so much a part of her life.
“I happen to be in that small group in the art world who finds their passion for artistic expression through making a book, versus perhaps making a painting or a sculpture,” she says. “That’s my passion…that’s my art.”
This article first appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.