A journey of 10,000 miles, says the Chinese proverb, begins with a single step. According to Wayne Kusy, one of a half dozen or so American folk artists who build model ships out of toothpicks, his 25-foot-long replica of the Queen Mary began with a single toothpick, and was finished 19 gallons of glue and 814,000 toothpicks later.
Like all of Kusy’s vessels, the Queen Mary was constructed in the front room of his dim, cramped third-floor walkup in Lincoln Square. Kusy’s most massive creation, it’s currently on display at the National Museum of Ship Models and Sea History in Sadorus, Illinois, a small town south of Champaign. Whenever a ship leaves Kusy’s apartment, he builds another one. Right now, three models take up most of the space in his workshop, a bare white room with a radiator in the corner and roller blinds pulled over the windows: On display are a Cutty Sark, an S.S. United States, and a catamaran yacht Kusy built as a commission for a boat owner in Waukegan. That one was a challenge, because of all the “curvature” involved.
Toothpicks have been a lifelong source of artistic inspiration for Kusy. Now in his 60s, he built his first boat as a fifth grader at Lincoln School in Evanston.
“It was a three-month-long project in which we had to take household utensils and make art out of it, so we went from oatmeal boxes, popsicle sticks, macaroni Christmas ornaments, and then we got to toothpicks, and something stuck in my head,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve been building plastic model airplanes, right?’ I started thinking, ‘Man, maybe instead of Legos, I can substitute this stuff.’ I built a tepee. I think I got a B. But I started expanding on it: I built boxes and houses and then I built a boat: an imaginary clipper ship modeled after the Cutty Sark and the U.S.S. Constitution.”
Kusy gave up toothpick art in high school, but during his freshman year at Loyola University, he read about an undersea explorer who was searching for the Titanic. Inspired, he spent the next year and a half building a 10-foot-long model of the sunken ship, consisting of 75,000 toothpicks. It was exhibited at a River North art gallery until Kusy sold it to a museum in Los Angeles. Today, Kusy’s Titanic can be seen at the Philharmonic Center in Naples, Florida.
Kusy’s creations have earned him four- and five-figure fees, but never a living. He works as a computer programmer by day and devotes his free time to toothpicks: an hour or two every evening, and on Saturdays from 7 in the morning to 7 at night, “until Star Trek.” It doesn’t cost him much. A school in Roselle built a miniature Sears Tower out of 3,500 toothpick boxes. After taking it apart, they donated the boxes, which contained 1 million toothpicks, to Kusy. His closets are filled with toothpicks. Franklin International sponsors him with free glue.
“It gives me something to do,” Kusy says. “There’s the fame and not necessarily a toothpick fortune, but it’s gotten me a few jobs along the way.”
Kusy is rather well known in his little field: In 1997, he was featured in People magazine, posing in the Lake Michigan surf with a skeleton of a ship in progress. That was an issue with Princess Diana on the cover, right before her death. The article led to a call from a booker for David Letterman’s Late Show, who was looking for eccentrics to intersperse with the usual roster of celebrities.
“She called me up and she said, ‘How much would it cost to bring that out there?'” Kusy recalls. “So I got a quote. It was pretty expensive but it didn’t sound like the price was any issue with her. They picked somebody else: a guy who blew on a bottle to make a song.”
I knew Kusy for a long time before I learned he built boats out of toothpicks. We both attend the same microchurch: Rogers Park Presbyterian, where the weekly congregation usually numbers between five and 10. It’s a good place for loners to worship.
Kusy’s art is, in its way, a side project, but he also has a side project to his side project: Wood Zeppelin, a stop-motion animated band consisting of musicians built out of toothpicks. (The real life musicians on which the characters are based have performed at Lizard’s Liquid Lounge in Albany Park.) Kusy got the idea after producing a time-lapse video of himself building a model of the S.S. Algonquin for the village of Algonquin. He films the videos on a green screen in his front room, posing the musicians alongside Chicago landmarks such as the skyscraper formerly known as the Sears Tower and the skyscraper formerly known at the John Hancock Center — both constructed of toothpicks.
When you and I look at a toothpick, we see a sliver of wood whose only function is to remove food from between our teeth. When Wayne Kusy looks at a toothpick, he sees armadas, skylines and rock bands. That, my friends, is why he’s an artist.