Hours later, the swollen Iowa River surged through Iowa City, Iowa, cresting at 31.5 feet and creating so much damage that locals would call it their Katrina. Mr. Fellows spent that night on a friend's couch. When he rose late in the morning and ambled down to his house, he found it under nine feet of water.
The destruction would be bad enough for anyone, but for Fellows it was particularly devastating. An acclaimed graphic artist – someone who had spent years creating illustrations for major publications like Harper's, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic – he saw an entire life's work destroyed by the silt and surly water. This included 40 years of memorable art and a career portfolio of imagery that chronicled his life along the way, some 2,000 paintings and 70 elegant sketchbooks in all.
For some time he'd wanted – even prayed for – time to step back after more than a decade of high income and success as an illustrator. His marriage had ended. He knew that he ought to be a better, more attentive father to his preteen daughter, Daisy. But to end like this, with floodwaters destroying all the illustrations he'd need to build a portfolio and get new jobs?
"It's a strange feeling when you wade into the aftermath of something like that and you find visual remnants of things you recognize, but they are squishy and amorphous and when you try to touch them, hold them, they fall apart," he recalls. "Events forced me to act boldly, to act fearlessly, to take a chance and assess what really matters."
With some of the little money left in his bank account, he rented a cottage in Michigan the following summer and had Daisy join him. He also began to paint. Instead of selling works for thousands of dollars that would be seen by millions of magazine readers, he painted canvases and offered them for a few hundred dollars apiece. Instead of crafting art in a personal studio, he set up an easel along highways and farm fields. People would stop to see what he was doing.