Dan Toomey, Michael Horvich and Barbara Myers are veteran collectors. One-of-a-kind artifacts, ubiquitous and often discarded items, small oddities, family mementoes and handcrafted objects are the treasures and lifeblood of these Evanston collectors whose creative pleasures also include organizing, displaying and living with their collections.

A sense of humor and family sentiment

Dan Toomey likes the artistry of placing things in just the right place, and he dislikes walls that aren’t sufficiently filled. He likes containers such as small drawers and boxes and see-through glass jars. He also likes using borders of things to decorate a wall or room. “I’ve been collecting things for a long time,” he said, “but now I think the hunt for me is over and I will keep arranging and mingling the things I have.”

Toomey thinks his godmother, Florence, might have been a catalyst for his collecting passion. “She was a traveler and was fond of me,” he said. “When she traveled she brought me back souvenirs, often miniatures that I loved.”  

Many years later, when his two sons were young but had outgrown their numerous Fisher-Price playsets, Toomey remembers his ambivalence about getting rid of the Fisher-Price Little People and his ultimate decision to keep them. Since then, he’s been collecting and often repurposing things, finding whimsical pleasure in juxtaposing objects usually not found together.

Each of the dozens of keys in Dan Toomey’s collection are a clue to his past. Each has a small tag attached revealing what the key opens. (Photo by Judy Chiss)

Toomey, a retired school social worker who lives in Evanston with his appreciative but non-collecting wife Maureen, arranges, displays and tinkers with his collection pieces in a storefront studio space in southeast Evanston. 

It is crammed full of carefully arranged objects, including cabinets holding thimble collections and commemorative spoons, lapel pins, flags, vintage hat forms, magnets, holiday decorations, cigar boxes, books, postcards and vintage vinyl kept near an old turntable. 

A large collection of license plates borders the walls, many of the plates presented to Toomey by friends attending his 70th birthday bash. The studio, with its couch and reading lamp and giant front window, is his perfect place to hang out and tinker. A spacious basement area contains his tool bench, storage for supplies and unfinished projects. 

A passerby left Dan Toomey a donation and a thank-you note for improving his daily commute. (Photo by Judy Chiss)

Many of Toomey’s collections and the spaces he fills with them reflect his strong connection to friends and family. A large map in the studio is dotted with pushpins documenting all of the places he, his wife and kids have traveled. Enlarged childhood photos of the kids and grandkids are hung near a framed self-portrait one son painted when he was a teen.

Near several musical instruments are dozens and dozens of strung-together keys and key chains, most bearing a small round paper tag identifying what that key opened. Elsewhere in the studio is a family heirloom, a very old framed picture of the Virgin Mary looking down at the infant Jesus in her arms – placed next to a framed photo of Toomey’s daughter-in-law identically looking down at and holding her infant child.

Even the sports-themed bathroom filled with old golf clubs and baseball caps has nostalgic photos adorning the walls. One photo is of Toomey’s mother-in-law throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game and another is of Toomey as a pole vaulter in his youth.

Master gardener and collector

Before moving into their condo apartment a few years ago, the Toomeys lived in a house that had a yard. The yard was yet another canvas for Dan Toomey to design, embellish, rearrange and lovingly care for. In addition to a fountain and a fish pond, the yard and wooden deck were lush with flowering shrubs and trees, tall grasses, a rainbow of flowers, succulents and ferns and trellises and birdhouses. 

“Leaving behind our yard was tough, but the attraction of our condo is having a spacious rooftop deck just steps away where I can garden,” Toomey said. He collects plants like he does other artifacts. He has potted trees and shrubs, trailing vines, tall grasses, lots of sun-loving succulents, tall spiky plants and hundreds of blooming begonias in window boxes bordering the entire deck. There are lawn ornaments, a well-concealed but much-used potting shed, chairs spread about, and a table that can seat eight or 10 or more for a meal.

Dan Toomey changes the window display in his studio nearly every month. Metra commuters, neighbors and kids look forward to the Halloween display, up until Oct. 31. (Photo by Judy Chiss)

The beautiful garden is truly a labor of love – labor because as the seasons change, the hefty plants need to be moved inside the condo, or a block away to the studio with the giant window.

Collecting for seven decades

Michael Horvich, a retired teacher and artist, vividly remembers his 8-year-old self sitting in a hallway outside a classmate’s Chicago apartment, mesmerized by the sparkly treasures his friend stored and carried around in an old cigar box. Horvich has journeyed from collecting his own childhood pocket artifacts to housing, organizing, arranging and displaying hundreds of thousands of small treasures he’s collected. He’s also found a unique way to share his collections with others.

Despite collector Michael Horvich bequeathing thousands of artifacts to Chicago Children’s Museum in 2007, he’s turning is condo apartment into a personal museum with many thousands more small treasures. (Photo by Judy Chiss)

“As a kid, I loved dime stores,” Horvich said. “They were places to discover amazing things, and it was probably in a dime store that I realized my aesthetic is in small things.” 

He’s also found small and wondrous things at flea markets, garage sales, the beach, online, even in gumball machines. Friends give him small items, and whenever he’s traveling he returns home with souvenirs. “If I find duplicates of what I collect, I collect those too!” Horvich said.

A loving partnership, a spreading collection

Horvich admits that over time his collections have taken on sprawling proportions. When they began encroaching on all of the rooms in the north Evanston home he shared with his life partner, architect Gregory Maire, a plan was needed.

With Maire’s leadership and talents, the house’s guest bedroom became a gallery and storage room renamed Michael’s Museum. Cabinets, shelves, plastic shoeboxes, ledges, a large curatorial desk, and a closet accommodated marbles of every size and sort, chess pawns, board game markers, crochet sets, plastic people, miniature books, ornaments and multitudes of other items – all small. The Chicago Tribune featured Horvich in a 2007 story, and shortly thereafter Michael’s Museum found a new home at the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier.

A museum inside a museum

Since the children’s museum officially opened Michael’s Museum: a Curious Collection of Tiny Treasures in 2011, more than 2 million people have experienced the fun and whimsy of Horvich’s small treasures. 

In keeping with the collector’s love of tiny things, two of the three entries to the exhibit space are small. One doorway is just the right size for quite small children and bigger ones to walk or crawl through. Another opening is teensy, perfect-sized for a scampering mouse. 

A young visitor at Chicago Children’s Museum is enjoying a treasure hunt in the Michael’s Museum exhibit. (Chicago Children’s Museum photo)

Through the doors museum visitors discover more than a hundred different collections of small curiosities, as well as an assortment of magnifying glasses for better viewing of the tiniest things. Horvich is delighted to see his collections in a well-established museum where they are cared for and creatively shared with vast numbers of visitors.

A big pandemic project

Early in the pandemic, Horvich embarked on another grand plan. For several years since his partner’s 2015 death, Horvich had been living alone in the Evanston condo that the pair purchased nearly a decade earlier. Most of his larger-than-ever collections were displayed and stored in a bedroom until Horvich commenced his ambitious mission to inventory, unpack and display all of his artifacts, turning his home (even the bathrooms) into a carefully curated museum.

Between and next to paintings and drawings by Maire and other favorite artists, Horvich has displayed more primarily small treasures. They include everything from garden gnomes to Buddhas (over a hundred); evil eyes and good-luck fetishes to stacked decorative boxes; Asian and Mexican souvenirs to a colorful bouquet of Lego flowers; and many miniature glass frogs for arranging flowers as well as a bowl of toy frogs. There are also enough vintage greenware ceramic dishes stored on top of kitchen cabinets to host a sizable post-pandemic event, conceivably an opening of Michael’s Evanston Museum. If that happens, Horvich will enjoy sharing the back stories of all his small things.

Memories and beautiful things

Barbara Myers doesn’t think of herself as a collector, she thinks of herself as someone who likes to live with interesting and beautiful things.

She loves to see how the sun shines through the five or six blue bottles in the kitchen window of her Evanston home, and she adores the grouping of teeny ceramic vessels that were a gift from a student teacher in her classroom. 

Just as she loves wearing an old pair of soft and worn-in jeans that had belonged to a dear and now deceased friend, she likes looking at and using ceramic bowls made by a friend. She collects memories as well as beautiful things. 

Myers is an artist and a graduate of the School of the Art Institute. During the many years she taught art to children at a school in the very diverse Chicago Uptown neighborhood, she decided to not only provide instruction but to totally immerse her students in art. Almost single-handedly she turned the school halls into a veritable museum overflowing with colors, textures, forms and compositions created by the student artists. She wanted the beautiful and creative art they saw to inspire them just as she is inspired by the art objects in her home.

Nearly every surface in Barbara Myers’ home is filled with interesting things to look at or touch. (Photo by Judy Chiss)

Myers responds emotionally to texture and color and pattern. High on a wall of her living room is a row of colorful heavy-looking patterned gloves. Above the front window is a gift a friend brought back from travels: three flat irregularly shaped woven fans used to stoke a fire. A long wooden bowl in her dining room holds colored glass marbles and rests near a box containing Indian printing blocks that Myers brought back from a trip she took to India decades ago. Near a window is a tall open folding screen woven from tree branches, a unique gift from an artist friend.

Perhaps most prized by Myers are nine black-framed paper cuts in a lovely grouping, visible upon entering the apartment. “My son David did these. Each one is hand-cut without a pattern. I think they are exquisite, and I love looking at them,” she said. 

Mannequins that Barbara Myers has collected have become surfaces for her artistry. (Photo by Judy Chiss)

Myers likes mannequins and has found them at garage sales. She has transformed them with the assorted unusual and mostly small things she’s tucked away from a lawn sale or Goodwill excursion. Two mannequins in her apartment are astounding assemblages of intricately layered pieces creating small vignettes that tell stories. One mannequin has a craggy exterior but opens up into a kind of detailed and intricate 3-D diorama. 

A perfect personal shopper

Myers has an eye for interesting things, but not everything she buys ends up on display. Often she sees and buys special items to give away to the exact people she knows will like them.

A mannequin was delivered to an artsy friend who collects sewing novelties, a large bag of Legos went to neighbor boys across the hall, books about ceramics are dropped by the door of a friend who works with clay, and fancy old-fashioned beaded evening bags will be sent to her 5-year-old granddaughter for dress-up fun. 

If not a collector, she’s an unstoppable gatherer.

Judy Chiss

Judy Chiss has been a feature writer at the RoundTable since 2007 and especially enjoys writing about interesting happenings in the schools, as well as how our local not-for-profits impact the community....

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