193,000 Toothpicks and You

I grew up with models. Small-scale reproductions of boats, primarily—the Charles W. Morgan, the USS Constitution, battleships, aircraft carriers—carefully assembled, usually over the course of a cold New England winter, by my father or one of my two brothers.

So I thought I got the obsession. Then I encountered Wayne Kusy at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. His model of the ill-fated Lusitania, assembled from 193,000 toothpicks, is on view in the museum’s Permanent Collection Gallery. It’s a marvel of compulsive energy–a willful, no-holds-barred embrace of a very particular desire.

This quirky American museum sitting on the waterfront of a quirky American city features self-taught artists working outside formal traditions to convey their personal, often idiosyncratic, visions. The work is by turns charming and fraught. The biographies accompanying the art build a kind of parallel narrative, revealing souls who surmounted war and displacement, disability, institutionalization, incarceration, and diagnoses of autism, schizophrenia, and depression to participate in an act of creation.

That bone-deep commitment to a vision seems far removed from the demands of content creation. Our job is to bracket our passions and preoccupations to focus on “the message.” But most of us drawn to writing, video production, graphic design, or another content discipline can’t help but color that message with some of our own demons and dreams.

And in an age when thousands of data points help determine what stories get told, the wild card of raw engagement can’t be neglected. That vitality might just be the toothpick keeping your Lusitania afloat on the high seas.

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