08/25/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE SEA IS A CRUEL MISTRESS, taking great ships into her embrace and smashing them into so many toothpicks. Chicago artist Wayne Kusy, 36, does exactly the opposite: He takes toothpicks and painstakingly glues them together to make great ships.
Kusy's fragile fleet includes the Titanic, 10 feet long and made of 75,000 toothpicks, which sits in L.A.'s Carole & Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures, and a 16-foot, 194,000-toothpick Lusitania, which just completed a two-year nationwide museum tour.
Kusy's creative compulsiveness has won praise from shipbuilding historians as well as fans of folk art. His work, says Rebecca Hoffberger of Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, which showed the Lusitania, "is joyous. It's wondrous."
The son of a pharmacist father, who died when Kusy was 8, and a mother who is a retired medical technician, the shipbuilder-to-be began crafting his crafts as a fifth grader in Evanston, Ill. By his third ship he had found his technique—gluing two flat toothpicks together to make a tiny plank, then attaching the planks to a skeleton. "It seemed so natural," he says, "since toothpicks are wooden, and ships are made of wood."
Now he has to find a museum—or a buyer—for some of his six ships. "They're so big," says Kusy, a graphic designer who lives in a studio apartment. "There's no place to put them." His next project, expected to take three years, is a 25-foot replica of the Queen Mary. "I estimate she'll take a million and a half toothpicks," he says.