Triumph from tragedy: The making of the Loomis train crash sculpture

Paul Kuhn has lost weight, and gained a thick beard.

The lifelong Naperville resident doesn’t have a lot of time these days for sitting down to savor meals, or maintaining a clean-shaven jaw. His focus is entirely taken — 15 hours every day of the week — by three imaginary people steadily coming to life in his hands.

“It’s all physical, and I can’t gain any weight,” Kuhn said of his under-construction sculpture, which will be the nonprofit Century Walk Corporation’s next piece of three-dimensional public art. “I’m eating a ton.”

Barely eight weeks remain before the artist’s project, titled Tragedy to Triumph, is to be dedicated near the Loomis Street rail crossing. It was there that the collision of two trains in 1946 claimed 45 lives, injured more than 100 people, unified Naperville’s residents in bringing relief and comfort to those involved, and launched an era of railway safety reforms.

Before the finished sculpture can be installed, it will be hauled away to undergo electrostatic powder coating and other “really cool, high-tech” processes to protect it and ensure its longevity, said Kuhn, 34, who has already logged upwards of 800 hours on the piece.

“The next three weeks will be brutal,” he said.

Learning curves

Three dimensions remain a relatively new realm for Kuhn, who considers himself a painter who has branched out into sculpting. The rules are different when a project has so much relief.

He set up a sort of grid, using a metal frame and sliding rulers held stationary by clamps. It helps define the placement of the three life-sized figures, which have bodies made of rail spikes, stabilized by rebar spines, and shoes shaped from spike heads.

“I was really struggling at first with how to measure everything,” Kuhn said. “How do I find the outer limits of where a leg is, where a waist is?”

The process already has surprised him at assorted turns. He realized at one point that he has begun to know the forms by heart.

“It’s been weird how much I haven’t looked at the reference photos,” he said, alluding to hundreds of images snapped by photographer and friend Mike Talladen, using models whose dimensions have been meticulously transferred to the trio.

About 100 spikes go into each layer of the skirt encircling the center figure, representing a young woman being supported by the two people flanking her, creating a human crutch. Each weld makes the artist more comfortable with the medium.

“When I became an expert at legs, I was done with them,” Kuhn said. “And now I’m learning arms.”

Many heroes

As their forms fill in, the sailor, factory worker and injured passenger become somehow familiar to him — even though the figures aren’t intended to represent specific personalities.

“There’s so many stories of heroics that I didn’t want to pinpoint any one person,” Kuhn said.

He and City Councilman Paul Hinterlong, chairman of the committee planning the memorial, both emphasized that the message of the sculpture is not the horror of the rear-end collision between the Exposition Flyer and the Advance Flyer, but the impact of the crash on the community and its people.

“There’s been a lot of engineering changes that came about in the railroad community, (but) the real story we’re trying to promote is how the town came together and pitched in and helped out with the rescue,” Hinterlong said.

Immediately after the crash, furniture manufacturer Peter Kroehler sent his employees over to the site east of his factory, now the Fifth Avenue Station building, to begin helping with the rescue. North Central students hauled their beds out of dorm rooms and brought them over to the Kroehler factory, which had instantly morphed into an emergency hospital and morgue.

“This is huge, especially back in 1946,” Hinterlong said, noting that the city’s population then numbered around 5,000, and the police force and fire department comprised just a handful of responders.

Although no Naperville residents perished in the crash, about half of those who died were World War II veterans coming home.

“It was everyone coming together, working together on a very tragic situation,” Hinterlong said.

‘Spiritual awakening’

Assorted signs pointed the way to this project coming to the fore at this moment in Kuhn’s professional life. His day job as chief safety officer of Indigenous Railroad Services, from which he’s now on leave, has made him “an authority on railroad safety,” he said.

The position also enabled Kuhn to salvage more than seven tons of steel rail spikes and rebar to create the piece. Situated in his grandparents’ backyard, his studio sits just yards from rails that regularly bring trains rumbling past. His business, recently incorporated, already carried the name Twelve Limbs Art Studio when Kuhn was commissioned late last year to create the sculpture, consisting of figures whose collection of arms and legs number an even dozen.

He has a sense that it was all meant to be. The exterior effects of weight loss and thick beard are paralleled by deeper spiritual impacts on his core being. Kuhn has given a great deal of thought to the fateful afternoon nearly 68 years in the past, and all that followed the accident.

“I think about heaven, and the people … I like to think they know I’m doing this,” he said.

It’s also had an effect on his sense of compassion.

“There’s just been a really big change inside me,” said Kuhn, who now actively looks for ways to be of service to others. “I’ve always been polite and said ‘thank you,’ but now I really mean it.”

He is acutely aware of the weight of not just his materials, but the subject matter itself.

“It’s been a definite spiritual awakening for me, just wanting to do everyone proud,” he said.

Kuhn is abundantly thankful for the help provided by his dad, Tom Kuhn, who is serving as project manager, and all the “family and friends giving me nothing but love and support.”

When the piece is complete and on its way to the public arena, he’ll do “plenty of celebrating” and probably catch up on some sleep. And eat some robust, leisurely meals. Maybe shave. He’s quite sure he’ll be ready for a break.

“But at the same time,” he said, “I want to find the next challenge.”