It’s a warm afternoon in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Joseph Furey is standing in the empty, five-room apartment that he and his wife, Lillian, shared for more than 40 years. Thousands of tiny heart-shaped cardboard cutouts, seashells, bits of tile, pieces of glass, and painted peas, lima beans and clay birds festoon every wall, door and ceiling. Lillian died in 1981, but Furey, now 83, stayed on alone for another seven years, obsessed with an unusual labor of love and sorrow. “That’s how I come to do it,” he tells the reporter who has accompanied him on this visit. “I just kept decorating the place, doing it for her and maybe to kill time and forget some of the grief.”
Last year Furey left the apartment to live with a son in upstate New York. He had been mugged twice in the old, three-story walk-up after burglars caught him napping. “I didn’t hear ’em break in ’cause I had my hearing aid turned off,” he says, jabbing the air with a sharp left. “Yeah, I used to be a boxer. But now I guess I’m—what’s the word?—an artiste.”
Whatever the label, Furey is a folk-art original who has created “an epic work of beauty,” says Barbara Head Millstein, an associate curator of the Brooklyn Museum and Furey’s principal champion. “And what makes this so wonderful is that he did it because he was insanely in love with his wife.”
Often working on scaffolds 12 hours a day, Furey created his swirls, crosses and other patterns with about 90,000 objects. Millstein and others would like to preserve the creation, and Furey says he is flattered. But the prospects are dim because the apartment’s landlord wants to gut and renovate the place and turn it into a co-op. “I love the man and his work,” says Vincent Kelley of Davis Kelley Associates, owners of the building. “But I’ve got investors to answer to. I’ll have to do something in the next few months.”
Furey inspects the fallen plaster and decorative pieces in the bathroom, where a ceiling leak has caused some damage. “This was the first room I did,” he says, noting that he started it before Mom, as he calls Lillian, died at 76 of a heart attack. “I wanted to brighten it up, and red hearts were her favorite.” He points to the jaunty bow-tie cutouts, put up for an oldtime friend nicknamed Bow-tie George. The clam, mussel and spiral-shaped shells were collected from a local deli and a nearby beach as well as from Venezuela, where Furey spent two years working in the late 1940s. “I wrote Mom every day I was there,” he says. “I brought home two bushels of shells to decorate picture frames, end tables and jewelry boxes. I guess that’s when all the decorating started.”
Furey’s own origins were in Camden, N.J., where he came from a family of six. His mother died when he was 2, and his father was an unaffectionate, itinerant dockyard worker. Furey left school in the fifth grade and started work at age 12 as a riveter in a Boston boiler-works factory. Later, in the mid-’20s, he won about 60 boxing matches as a light heavyweight while serving on a Navy cruiser. After his Navy stint, he won three semipro bouts in Boston, then quit the ring and found construction work in New York. It was there that he met and married Lillian in 1933 and began a family of five children, one of whom died in infancy and one from rheumatic fever at 8.
As an ironworker foreman, Furey spent almost 40 years building and repairing skyscrapers, piers and bridges. “It was tough going at times,” he says, flexing a tattooed biceps. “But I had good kids and a beaut of a woman by my side. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
Millstein figures at least $65,000 would be needed to preserve the apartment but admits the Brooklyn Museum has little money for such a project. “I hope they save it,” Furey says with a shrug. “But if they don’t, well, I can still take a punch. It ain’t gonna knock me out.”