Wheaton teacher uses everyday objects to create art

  • Wheaton artist Joe Eddy Brown shows the bird cage sculpture he will have in a show at the August House Studio in Chicago. The geodesic dome bird cage is made of 42 coat hangers.

    Wheaton artist Joe Eddy Brown shows the bird cage sculpture he will have in a show at the August House Studio in Chicago. The geodesic dome bird cage is made of 42 coat hangers. Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Posted3/31/2010 12:01 AM

The first defining moment of Joe Eddy Brown's life came when he was 4 years old and living on his family farm in central Illinois.

His father found an old typewriter that someone had junked in a field and it sat in the brooding house for hens.


Brown stuck feathers into the machine, beat on the keys and watched the feathers bounce up and down.

"I can make stuff," he realized. "I can make my own toys."

Brown's penchant for making and fixing things made him popular with the nuns in the Catholic grade school he attended. When he was in fourth grade, one of them gave him a crown that read "King of Creativity."

The Wheaton resident still has the crown today. His own moniker for himself is "Thingmaker" - taken from a Mattel toy that debuted in the 1960s. He lives up to both titles with his sculpture, art talks, magic shows, juggling and guitar-playing.

But Brown, a former teacher at Glen Crest Middle School in Glen Ellyn, does more than create things. He has spent a major part of his adult life helping others to create, too.

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He was inspired to teach in another defining moment in his life when he met Willard R. Smith, III. Brown, who was living in Chicago, was lost one night in the Western suburbs when he pulled his car into the Glen Ellyn campus of College of DuPage. He entered the only building that had lights on, followed the hammering and drilling to Smith's jewelry-making class, and sat down.

Brown signed up for the class two weeks later and soon was helping Smith out with the course. Within a year, he was teaching the overflow of students they had attracted.

"I have an affinity for fixing and making things out of wire," he said.

Brown, who has a bachelor's degree in design from Southern Illinois University, also realized he had found his career in teaching. He left his job at a packaging company, where he worked on the original McMuffin packaging for McDonald's Corporation, and entered graduate school. While still working on a master's degree in fine arts, he landed a job at Glen Crest teaching art.

"I had no background in art," he said.

An experimental state program let Brown obtain a fast-track teaching certificate based on experience. Brown is a natural teacher, Smith said.


"He's so good with students," the older man said of his friend and former student. "He's a big kid."

Brown remained at Glen Crest 35 years, retiring three years ago. Retirement, however, isn't quite the right word to describe Brown's state of being.

The man who mentored 71 student-teachers and was a runner-up for Illinois Teacher of the Year now works part-time as student-teaching supervisor for National Louis University. He also teaches yoga one night a week, gets people started on playing guitar, gives talks on art, and judges art shows with his artist partner and friend Jan Voogd.

A member of the DuPage and Naperville art leagues, Brown himself has won many awards at art shows. He recently had a show at Burning Bush Gallery in Wheaton, where he invited wood artist Kip Pasta to join him. He'll have a geodesic dome birdhouse made out of 42 coat hangers in "The Return of Birds I Have Known" show from May 7 to 29 in August House Studio in Chicago.

Taking its inspiration from Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" poem, the cage carries a sign reading, "Welcome to the Poe House," and features a three-dimensional raven on the outside.

Brown calls this very unconventional bird cage the most labor-intensive piece he's ever done.

"My stuff, they either got to kick it out of the show or give it a prize. Just can't let it sit there," he said.

Brown started in sculpture only a year ago after 20 years of jewelry-making and 10 years of playing in bands. Fond of street art, he fashions his work out of everyday materials he finds. Once a week, he and his daughter, 24-year-old Emmy Star Brown, scour the alleys of Chicago for such discards as wire and window frames.

"We take trash and turn it into cash," Brown quips.

Following in her father's footsteps, Emmy said she uses the found objects in her own artwork as well.

"He's always been an inspiration to me," she said. "He's always full of ideas and new projects."

Brown is not through experimenting with different kinds of art. After years of teaching art, he is taking his first painting class with internationally known artist Zaki Knapen, executive director of the Alliance of Fine Art and a Chicago-area resident for nine years. He considers Knapen a friend and they have bought each other's art.

Over the years, Brown has befriended other artists, teachers, magicians, writers - anyone with something to teach him.

"My whole secret is you hook your cart to a star. You find somebody who is really doing something cool that you like. You offer to help them, you go with them, carry their bags, set up their projector. You'll learn firsthand from a master," he said.

"Give them something and don't always be asking for stuff. You'll be amazed at what you get back."

Ever a teacher himself, Brown says he feels he should share his talents with those ask, whether or not he considers them friends.

"I don't care what it is you want do, if you have passion and put in the time, you can do this," he said. "I think talent is highly overrated."

Brown, who is in his early 60s, said he's been told he should write a book about his life, but he's too busy to think about that yet.

"If I ever did write a book, it would be called, 'Joe Eddy, 1947-2010: The Early Years,' because I'm still on fire," he said.

• Do you know someone with an unusual job or hobby? Let us know at sdibble@dailyherald.com, (630) 955-3532 or 4300 Commerce Court, Lisle, 60532.

If you go

What: Birdhouse exhibit titled "The Return of Birds I Have Known" by Joe Eddy Brown

When: Opening reception 6-9 p.m. May 7; exhibit open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, May 7-29

Where: August House Studio, 2113 W. Roscoe St., Chicago

Info: (773) 327-5655 or augusthousestudio.com