Wayne Kusy’s mania started small. In the fifth grade he assembled a tepee out of toothpicks, then he built a toothpick house. A year later he tried a ship. Though it didn’t look exactly like a ship, it wasn’t too far off the mark, so he built another. Eventually Kusy was ready for something big. He decided to build a scale replica of the Titanic.

He bought a plastic Revell model, studied blueprints and deck plans in the library, and glued 75,000 toothpicks together over a three-year period to complete the ten-foot-long, minutely detailed model. He kept all the empty boxes to record an accurate toothpick tally. The finished product looked great, but a couple of years later Kusy discovered he had a problem. How was he going to move it?

“It took a whole day to get it down nine flights of stairs, and it was too big to get around some of the corners,” he recalls. “Stuff kept breaking off, like needles falling off a Christmas tree.” On its maiden voyage, Kusy’s Titanic dropped anchors, propellers, and lifeboats on the way out of his old apartment and lost ladders and railings on the stairs up to his new place. Then, in a bizarre boating accident, all the toothpick ships he built before the Titanic were crushed under a door, lost forever.

Kusy was able to collect the pieces that had fallen off of his Titanic and paste them back into place. In 1993 he agreed to display the ship in the front window of a friend’s shop. He never counted on his model getting much attention. But soon after it was placed in the window of the Chicago Poster Gallery on North Avenue, the Museum of Science and Industry asked to borrow it for an exhibition on the Titanic and invited Kusy to give a talk.

Kusy had always considered music to be his true calling. He plays guitar under the pseudonym Roy Clark Hendrix in a band called the Flannel Tubs. He’d been organizing free music festivals on Cricket Hill since 1986, and the program guide from one of those festivals had evolved into a free monthly newspaper dedicated to the local music scene. But once he started showing his toothpick Titanic, he found himself being called a name he hadn’t been called before.

“I’d always thought of this as a hobby, but people started saying it was art and calling me an artist,” he explains, “a naive artist.” Kusy may have been untrained, but he wasn’t all that naive. Once his ship had sailed, he could see a bigger ship coming in. Using 193,000 toothpicks, five gallons of Elmers, and a curtain rod, Kusy spent the next year putting together a 16-foot-long model of the Lusitania. Though it weighed only 25 pounds, the ship’s skeleton followed a honeycomb structure–the thousands of triangulated toothpicks were hypnotic to look at and made the ship as strong as if it had been made of hard wood. His Lusitania traveled to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, and Kusy was reviewed in the Baltimore Sun, New York Times, and Washington Post. The Lusitania will be reproduced in the January issue of Smithsonian.

Now 35, Kusy shares a small one-bedroom apartment in Rogers Park with a partially completed model of the Queen Mary. Two sections of the hull take up the length of the living room floor; a third section leaning against a wall nearly reaches the ceiling. When complete, his Queen Mary will be 25 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 6 feet high, made up of close to one million toothpicks and more than a few tubs of glue. Kusy says he’s already working on his next project–a book titled All From Toothpicks.

Kusy’s Titanic will be included in the exhibit “Art ‘n’ Soul: Artwork by Chicago Musicians,” which opens from 6 to 7:30 PM this Friday in the second-floor gallery at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted; it’s free. The show will run through January 19. For more information, call 773-514-1802.

–Jeffrey Felshman

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Alexander Newberry/Allan Sprecher.