Bradley “Eddy” Johnson wanted a house filled with art, every inch of every wall taken up with paintings, drawings, sketches, posters, sculptures, collectibles, found objects, records and books to consider, admire and, in some cases, be disturbed by. For 35 years, he produced and purchased such things, working toward his goal, an end that became easier to achieve when he met his wife, Phoebe, who also dreamed of a creative palace.
And their home was filled with art — until Sunday, when a category F4 tornado (second highest on the Fujita scale for intensity) hit Washington, Illinois. In a flash, their house was destroyed and with it, most of their art.
“At first I was sort of bummed,” Eddy said, “but then instantly I very much enjoyed picking through the rubble.”
The couple rented the house from Eddy’s parents, who have homeowner’s insurance. Eddy and Phoebe haven’t had a chance to meet with (understandably busy) local insurance agents, but there’s some concern about whether the lost art — its value determined by Eddy and Phoebe against the few pieces they’ve sold — will be covered. Eddy has sold only a handful of his works for $200 to $500 apiece, but selling art was never his intention.
“I would never sell the stuff because I wanted to keep it to decorate my house,” he said. “I worked on that stuff every day.”
Eddy goes by Eddyfuckinartmachine for a reason: He’s always worked to create pieces — usually comprised of painting and mounting found objects — at a factory-like pace. A basement workshop doubled as a display room for his work, as did two bathrooms, two bedrooms, a living room and a garage. The kitchen was filled, too, not just with art but collectibles: Every wall in it was covered with Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics still in their plastic sleeves.
Sheryl Gillett, from the American Society of Appraisers, explained that, without pictures and records of individual sales, there isn’t much the couple can do to recoup their losses.
“At the very least, because an appraisal is an expensive process, you would want to have your own inventory. Photographs, measurements, dates the work was generated, the title, all the characteristics of value,” she said. “If these works aren’t valuable to you, then why didn’t you inventory and photograph them?”
Part of the answer to that, Eddy admitted, is laziness. The other part is the slim odds of a twister ripping your home apart, sending pieces as far as 100 miles away.
Most of the Johnsons’ house is now in ruins. Sifting through the remnants, Eddy has found a few things he hadn’t seen in some time — mostly pictures buried long ago in shoe boxes and at least one prized possession: a single California Raisins figurine.
One room did survive and almost completely intact. Between the couple and anyone who’s ever visited their home, the first floor lavatory was known as the “Jesus bathroom.” In it were pictures and figurines of Christ.
Eddy only saw the aftermath of the tornado, something he oddly regrets. In his words, he and Phoebe just “went to breakfast and came back to a warzone.”
“What are the statistical odds of that happening to you?” he said. “I didn’t get to experience the trauma firsthand.”
Eddy feels like his house wasn’t like the others destroyed on the block, which were mostly owned by long-time residents and filled with the typical trappings of suburban life. Those were filled, for the most part, with things bought, not made.
“It sucks to do without a house, but they’re all going to get everything back and probably get more than what they paid for the house to begin with,” Eddy said of his neighbors. “But I don’t know anyone else who had as much irreplaceable stuff as we did. … It took my whole life to make all that art.”
As for many others who’ve lost it all, friends have set up a webpage seeking donations to help the couple, whose day-jobs involve working with mentally challenged adults at a group home in Peoria. Phoebe also works as a hairdresser.
For the following week, Eddy and Phoebe have plenty of rubble to sift through. Eddy’s love of making art out of junk might actually reach its zenith in the tornado’s aftermath. Ultimately, while the loss of a lifetime of his creative output is disheartening, Eddy admits he was running out of room in his house to work, anyway.
Justin Glawe is a freelance journalist based in Grand Forks, North Dakota, which he can now say is a hell of a lot better than Williston. Follow him on Twitter: @JustinGlawe
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