20 Aug 2014
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Evanston-Bred Artist Builds Ships One Toothpick at a Time

Wayne Kusy is coming back to Evanston to help teach an art class after spending years building replica ships from toothpicks.

The cliché “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” seems appropriate when describing Wayne Kusy’s artwork.

A self-employed web developer and computer programmer by day, Kusy spends his free time assembling hundreds of thousands of individual toothpicks into to-scale replicas of famous ships. And though Kusy currently constructs ocean liners and clippers from his Lincoln Square apartment, which he said sometimes looks like Pearl Harbor, he discovered his passion for his medium while growing up in Evanston.

Kusy has had his work featured on “CBS This Morning” and “Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels,” has replica ships on display in museums throughout the country, has been written about in several British publications and has recently been contacted to appear on television in Japan. But today Kusy will make his return to Evanston to help teach kids at the Noyes Cultural Art Center’s “Winter Break Art Camp,” and hopefully, he said, inspire at least one to pick up the craft.

Evanston Patch recently spoke with Kusy to learn about his time in Evanston and his passion for building ships.

Evanston Patch: What got you started building ships from toothpicks?

Wayne Kusy: It started at in fifth grade. During art class we had an ongoing project of using various household utensils and making art out of it. And we were using oatmeal and Life [cereal] and seeing what we could do with it. We used popsicles, tongue depressors and then when we got to the toothpick part, I really got into. At that time I was also building model airplanes. I was really getting into that.

Looking back at it, with all the other art projects I did in fifth grade, usually you bring it home, it sits around and gets thrown away after a month. With the toothpick thing, that was the first one I kept working on. I kept building and building and building. I remember throughout the summer, I started working even more with the toothpicks and building little houses and little models. Eventually I started thinking, ‘hey, you can maybe try building a wooden ship.’ So I built a clipper ship.

Patch: What is your largest model?

Kusy:  The biggest one I’ve got is the [RMS] Queen Mary and that’s 25 feet long. It’s built in six sections. Everything is all toothpicks. I think it has 814,000 toothpicks.

Patch: Wow! How long did that take to build?

Kusy: The Queen Mary took me five or six years to build it. Over eight years counting breaks. I don’t [build ships] fulltime. It’s just on the weekends or I have a vacation or something. Even on vacation I prefer to go to Europe or somewhere. There are times when I just take some time off. And that ship would [occasionally] go on exhibit unfinished. Usually it takes a year for every 10 feet.

Patch: Why ships?

Kusy: I felt that I wanted to build ships because it is a challenge. The curvature. Houses are square and it’s easy to build those things. Ships were just more of a challenge because they’re round and the challenge got better as I started building them bigger. And now that they’re bigger, I can put more details on them. I tend to specialize in ocean liners between 1895 and 1940 and everyone in a while I’ll do a clipper ship.

Patch: Why toothpicks?

Kusy: I don’t know. They’re just easy to work with. Anything bigger is just harder to work with.

Patch: What are you working on now?

Kusy: The work in progress I’m working on is the SS America. It’s 13 feet long. It is going to be present tomorrow and I’ll be working on the hull. It’s unfinished and it is basically going to give the kids an idea of what you can do with toothpicks. It’s not just things you can do on a small scale, but that you can actually build quite big things with [toothpicks] that are quite strong.

Patch: What do you want kids to take away from seeing you work on your ships?

Kusy: To be able to build something on your own. To build something big. Especially in this kind of economy, I think it’s important to be industrious. Art is really important, I think, because it teaches kids to build something that they can call their own. You don’t get that from regular business courses in school. They basically teach you how to work for a company and manage the company’s affairs, whereas art teaches you how to be your own boss, wear the hats, whatever the project may be. It give you a sense of industriousness. That’s what I get out of it.

To view more of Kusy’s ships by visiting his website, click here.

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