The Eclectic Collector

by Gabrielle Balzell

A description of Joel Ommen’s Peoria house might sound a bit like the set of a campy movie. Amongst a totem pole, a wooden Native American and a life-size aviator mannequin, you’ll find a set of carousel horses, a calf-size papier mache cow, a five-foot-tall Predator replica made of car parts, and a miniature sculpture of a prostitute known as “Candy Apple.”

“I think it kind of surprises them,” Ommen remarks of most people’s first encounter with his collection. “There’s a lot of different things here—I don’t limit myself to one thing. It’s like people say, ‘Buy what you like, but buy what’s good and like what’s good.’ So that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

A lifelong collector, Ommen started out with coins around the age of six, before moving on to Caterpillar tractors, rifles and finally, art. After putting in 30 years at Peoria Plastics, he currently works second shift at Caterpillar in Morton, and his diverse collection offers a much-needed escape from the daily grind. “I started working in a factory, so I needed something… that was totally different… a change of pace [to] keep my mind active.”

In addition to an array of quirkier items, Ommen owns a large assortment of paintings and sculptures, many created by local artists he has come to know and admire. “There’s just so much talent here,” he proclaims of central Illinois. “We have artists who are as good as anyone in the country… You meet [them]… You develop relationships… I try to learn from the artists.” Among his more distinguished pieces are a Lonnie Stewart bronze eagle head, Preston Jackson’s painting, “A Gangland Stabbing,” and the first sculpture of Jackson’s Julieanne’s Garden series, as well as favorite works by Kelly Roath Rowden, Tracey Frugoli and Carrie Pearce.

An avid history buff, Ommen boasts an impressive collection of antique ethnographic currency, some dating as far back as 600 or 700 BC. Not only appreciating them for their rarity, Ommen values the currencies for their trading heritage and the insight they offer into the past. “There’s just so much there to learn,” he explains, noting that some of his pieces were featured in Lakeview Museum’s Moneyville exhibit last year.

And there’s more to be found in just about every nook and cranny of Ommen’s house. “[It] looks like an art gallery,” he says. “It’s just all over the place.” Other items strewn about include a vintage circus mask, dozens of pieces of pottery, studio glass, wood carvings, weather vanes, hitching posts, car and motorcycle parts… and so much more.

Always on the hunt for historical artifacts, meaningful art or anything interesting that happens to catch his eye, Ommen plans to continue expanding his eclectic collection as his budget and space allow. As old habits die hard, it’s tough to imagine someone giving up a hobby that has been a part of his life for more than half a century. “Collecting is just in me… It’s heritage. It’s history,” Ommen explains. “There’s so much to study, to bring out. You really need an outlet, and collecting has always been mine.” a&s

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