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Dennis “Denny” O’Neil, one of the titans of D.C. printmaking, died Nov. 2 in his Alexandria home, after several years living with progressive supranuclear palsy. He was 74.
For nearly 35 years, he was the director of Hand Print Workshop International, a screenprinting studio he founded in the early 1980s. Over the years, he collaborated and published prints with well-known D.C. artists like William Christenberry, Robert Stackhouse, Renée Stout, and Yuriko Yamaguchi, and worked internationally, most notably with Russian “paper architects” like Yuri Avvakumov and Alexander Brodsky. He was also an influential professor and former chair of the fine arts program at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, where he taught printmaking for 30 years.
O’Neil was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1946, the son of Kenneth O’Neil, an aeronautical engineer and Defense Department contractor, and Sunny O’Neil, an authority on dried flowers who designed holiday decorations for Barbara Bush and the Smithsonian. When O’Neil was a child, his father’s job relocated the family to Scarsdale, New York, where his mother enrolled him in art classes with Robert Indiana and Jack Davis (a founder of Mad magazine). The family later relocated to Bethesda in the early 1960s. He received a BA in fine art from Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, where, after flunking a class in painting, he took a printmaking course with Bruce McCombs. The work was good enough to get him into graduate school at Ohio University.
By 1973, O’Neil worked out of a studio in Georgetown that he shared with furniture designer Peter Danko. In these early years, he exhibited etchings at Jane Haslem Gallery and monotypes at Wolfe Street Gallery, while also supporting himself with more commercial enterprises, printing t-shirts and exhibition texts for area museums. He met his future wife, Nancy Zimler, in the studio. The two married in 1977 and moved to Alexandria when Danko moved his studio across the river. Dennis would eventually open Hand Print Workshop out of the studio he built in his backyard in 1983.
In 1986, a fundraiser for the Lab School of Washington refocused O’Neil’s trajectory toward collaborating with other artists to publish their work. Artists Gayil Nalls and Susan Firestone asked O’Neil to be the master printer of 91 editions of a portfolio of work by eight artists, Tom Green, Alan Stone, and Jody Musoff among them. The collaboration made an indelible impression on O’Neil, as did the technical challenges each work presented.
The following year, O’Neil was invited to join the faculty at the Corcoran College of Art by Georgia Deal, chair of the printmaking department. “I’d never seen anyone do such painterly processes with printmaking,” says Deal, who acknowledges that screenprinting is often associated with hard edge and graphic designs for t-shirts and posters. “He was so inventive in experimental techniques that [his screenprints] look like lithographs.” Together, they took a department with three classes and expanded it to 15 courses at its height, creating interdisciplinary classes with painters, graphic designers, and book artists.
“Dennis was the reason I chose the Corcoran,” says Jennaway Pearson, who picked the Corcoran’s MA program in Art and the Book over similar programs at MICA or MassArt. “I’d never seen anything like what he was making. This is the person I want to work with most.” She would later go on to be his printing assistant at HPWI. “He was really inspiring and encouraging with all of his students. It gave them permission to experiment or try things and take a risk,” she says.
Experimentation extended into the work he published at HPWI, as well. “He created a setting that made you feel so comfortable,” says Stout, who first worked with O’Neil in 2000, a time when she was mostly known for her sculpture and paintings. Unlike other print houses where she had worked, “he made it more playful and creative. Let’s see what happens!” That playfulness encouraged Stout to begin drawing on Mylar for her first edition of prints in O’Neil’s studio. “That’s why—now when I have a show—all of my shows have a drawing. Dennis brought that back out of me.”
“Since he worked with monoprints, he was much more comfortable with not making hard editions,” or editions where every print looks exactly the same, says George Fox, O’Neil’s studio assistant beginning in the late 1980s. For O’Neil, the shift occurred as he integrated photographic process and water-based inks into the studio. He could then manipulate exposure times and play with the inks before they dried, making the process more painterly. “You’re making a piece of art that has multiple copies. They don’t even have to be alike! That’s eventually what galleries came to us for,” Fox says.
But their experiments were not limited to inks and photo processes. O’Neil might build up surfaces with crushed tires. He might throw coffee grounds into the inks, or finely crushed glass that would reflect the light, like the striping on a highway. The inverse was also possible. Artist Pavel Makov wanted his print to look like an old map, and everything O’Neil and Fox tried was unsuccessful. “Dennis took one of the proofs and took an orbital sander on it,” Fox remembered. Makov thought O’Neil was crazy, until he saw the print. “We printed up more, and Pavel spent days sanding down each print,” Fox says.
In 1989, O’Neil published reproductions of the work of Russian constructivist Alexander Rodchenko at the request of the artist’s estate and Walker, Ursitti, and McGinnis Gallery. The gallery later invited him on a trip to Moscow. There, they organized a workshop in the studio of Viktor Penzin. O’Neil learned about the Russian tradition of lubok woodblock printing, and he introduced them to water-based silkscreen printing, photographic techniques, and non-toxic inks. It was the first time they had seen such advances in printmaking: their response was enthusiastic. After this demonstration, O’Neil sensed the possibilities and energy in Moscow. As he later told the Washington Post in 1996, “I had this idea: to begin a collaborative workshop to try to raise something new in Moscow that was part Russian and part American, and be part of the changes that were happening.”
By the summer of 1992, he set up shop within a mile of the Kremlin. A connection with the Artists’ Union of the USSR helped him navigate the red tape to acquire a vacant building once used by bureaucrats. O’Neil and Fox built everything from scratch, repurposing some of the lumber from their shipping crates to make tables and chairs. Electricity was another matter. “We paid an electrician in vodka to rewire stuff,” recalls Fox. “The sink where we washed all the screens was made out of a toilet, which only worked sometimes.” The Moscow Studio—as it would be called for a Corcoran retrospective in 1996, when the studio closed—created international collaborations, for both O’Neil and the Corcoran, with artists from Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia and elsewhere. It also served as a template for him to try other international collaborations, as well as helped build the studios for the Skopelos Foundation for the Arts in Skopelos, Greece, in 1999.
In 2018, O’Neil received a Printmaker Emeritus award from SGC International, followed by a Distinguished Service Award from Muskingum University in 2019.
He is survived by Zimler, his wife of 43 years, his sons Colin (Jocelyn Lyle) and Robin (Lauren Tull), his grandson Lyle, and brothers Tim and Kerry O’Neil. The family is waiting until after the pandemic to plan a memorial. In the meantime, they encourage those who want to remember him to donate to the family of Yaroslav Koporulin, a former student and friend of O’Neil’s whose death from cancer in late October left his widower to raise four children under the age of 5.
After leaving the Corcoran in 2016, O’Neil mounted his final exhibition, Process & Innovation: 20 years of Partnerships in Print at Hand Print Workshop International, which was shown locally at the Athenaeum in Alexandria. Visually, it serves as a testament to the flexibility of screenprinted processes. More significantly, it was a testament to the man who made it possible. “Denny brought out the best in anyone,” artist Steven Cushner reflects. “You have to really be interested in other people to want to collaborate that way.”