It was autumn when Paul Kuhn got the call. The people from the Century Walk Corp. had been trying to reach him for a while, but he was out working on the railroad, where cell reception was poor.
The 34-year-old Naperville native is chief safety officer for Indigenous Railroad Services, which does salvage work for the industry. He’s an artist at heart, though. He had just sculpted a 16-foot-tall giant in the Fifth Avenue backyard of his grandparents, Andy and Joan Kuhn, within earshot of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rails. The Sun had published a story about it.
Now Century Walk president Brand Bobosky was suggesting he vie for the job of creating a new sculpture to honor the 45 lives lost in Naperville when two trains crashed in April 1946 — and spotlight how the community rallied to the rescue and the railroad industry enacted safety reforms that have made rail travel safer.
The combination of the elements appealed to Kuhn, whose creative media of choice had typically leaned more toward canvas and paint.
He would tap the materials to which he now had abundant access, mostly steel rail spikes, to create the piece. It would depict three nameless figures that might have been on the scene that fateful day: a sailor who rode the train, but escaped injury; a Kroehler Furniture plant worker, one of hundreds who dropped everything and rushed to the scene to help; and a young female passenger hurt in the crash, being helped in a position known as the “human crutch” by the other two.
“With various cutting, grinding and welding techniques, it is totally possible to have realistic people made entirely out of spikes,” Kuhn wrote in his competitive proposal for the project.
The emphasis would be not on the grisly scene, but on how those nearby worked tirelessly to ease the horror.
“Helping us remember what happened so that we can honor those that were lost and those who answered the call to help … The spikes come together to make the people, as the people come together to make a community,” he wrote.
The schedule has been set. The sculpture will need to be ready for dedication on April 26, one day after the 68th anniversary of the tragedy on the tracks, right about where they cross Loomis Street. Relatives of many of those who perished on the trains will be coming out to see the unveiling.
Kuhn’s boss, Fred Barker, has given his blessing for a leave of absence as long as necessary.
“There’s some pretty cool features to the sculpture,” Kuhn says guardedly, unsure how much he should reveal to a reporter.
He shares that he’s looked into the dark day in the city’s history a little bit.
“I talked to a bunch of family members. My great-uncle Bob Riedy had just gotten back from the Army and he came back home four days after the accident happened,” he says. “It was really interesting talking to all the family members that are still alive and remember it, who were right down the street from the accident.
“It helped my put some of myself into the project.”
His studio, just a few steps away from the giant sculpture in his grandparents’ backyard, a space dotted with examples of Kuhn’s edgy, imaginative painting style, will serve as the site for creating the commemorative sculpture. Music plays as he works, but his sound track will also include the occasional passing train.
“Now that the leaves are down, you can hear them,” he said. “It’s kind of good inspiration to hear those trains every once in a while.”
The sculpture’s dedication is barely two months away. Work days are stretching 15 hours, every day of the week. Even nourishment is taking a back seat. Kuhn, who has grown noticeably thinner and now has a thick beard covering his jaw, says he’s put in about 800 hours on the figures. So far.
Tom Kuhn — the relative who’s not Kuhn’s dad, also named Tom Kuhn — has tutored the artist in welding techniques and figured out a way to use a vise and a custom-machined pry bar to ease greatly the task of bending each spike to the precise shape needed. A hundred carefully sculpted spikes were needed for each layer of the girl’s skirt. About eight of them have been welded into place so far. The figures’ lower extremities are complete, down to the shoes shaped from the heads of rail spikes, but their torsos are still abstract intersections of the chunky nails and rebar.
Still, the sculptor has begun connecting with the three nameless people.
“I didn’t want (to sculpt) a stretcher, because I really fell in love with the shape, and the people-helping-people aspect,” he says.
Tom Kuhn, the one who’s the artist’s dad, has been huge help since the work began, as its project manager. He has lined up the subcontractors who will help with the many details that don’t involve inspired welding.
“He’s really taken a lot of pressure off me,” the younger Kuhn says.
He’s been trying to eat, but there’s not much time for meals. Lots of water and Gatorade, and the occasional smoke, are helping sustain his focus.
“It’s all-consuming, but it’s a great challenge,” he says, adding that it seems the past and its earlier art works led him to this moment, and this place. “You really find out who you are when you’re challenged at that level.”
He spends a lot of each day thinking about what happened that afternoon, and how the community responded to it. Already he knows the process has changed him, not just physically but spiritually and emotionally as well. And while he still hasn’t shaken the feeling that a paintbrush fits into his hand more comfortably than a welder’s torch, he’s adjusting. He kind of likes it.
“It’s a good feeling to not be in a comfort zone,” he says.
Even though the figures have faces now, the two men’s wide-open stares give them a skeleton-like expression. Their eyelids will be added over the upcoming weekend. A few fingernails still have to be welded into place, and some grinding remains to be done as well.
Kuhn put in an all-nighter, night before last, intent on having the piece ready to ship out for weatherproofing, but it’s not quite finished just yet.
“I feel like every moment with these guys is a moment to finalize how I want it to look,” he says. “I don’t know what it’s going to feel like to not work like this.”
More than five months have passed since he last had a day off. It’s been intense, but he doesn’t want to talk about welding.
“The thing I like talking about is how it’s changed me as a person, my outlook on what hard work is, and what it can do for your soul,” he says, pondering the three familiar forms, marveling at how truly skeletal they were just three short months ago. “How could that not change you?”
He confesses that when he penned his proposal last fall, he wasn’t actually positive he could make people out of railroad spikes.
“For so long, people have said, ‘Oh Paul, you can build anything.’ After a while, you start to believe it,” he says.
There’s been mercy in the freedom to make public art beyond public view, shielded from specific expectations, but it hasn’t insulated the sculptor’s emotional state. He’s gone to sleep exhausted every night, and nervous. Wakefulness has brought nerves anew. A while back he decided to embrace it.
“Once I came to terms with that, instead of fighting it and trying to pretend I’m not nervous, it was, ‘OK, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’”
That’s not the only comforting cliche that has echoed in the back of his mind over the months since the journey began. He’s often remembered how his mom, Susie Kuhn, would use slightly exaggerated gestures as she rallied her kids through discouraged moments: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”
His parents’ presence has brought peace and encouragement, even through the seemingly endless solitary hours in the studio.
Earlier this week, lifelong Naperville resident Ron Keller came by with a windshield wiper from the Exposition Flyer, the train that couldn’t stop in time on that ill-fated afternoon. It was picked up after the crash by Keller’s dad, a Kroehler employee. It’s been sitting on a shelf at Keller’s house with some other railroad artifacts for a long while.
“I talked to my wife about it, she said, ‘You know, it’s really not doing much here,’” Keller will later relate.
When he told Kuhn about the piece, he was asked to bring it by the studio so it could be tucked into the sculpture before it’s finished.
“The windshield wiper is in the Kroehler worker’s heart,” Kuhn says.
Uncle Pete Kuhn and his truck arrived first thing in the morning. The sculpture is being packed up for the move. Straps and buckles secure them upright atop a pallet set on wheels.
Tom Kuhn, project manager, is assisting yet again. The figures are solid, but nobody wants them to teeter over. That feels unlikely, but safety comes first. A crew moves about, straightening this, tightening that.
“Watch the post over here, Paul,” the dad says, standing on the pallet for counterweight as the assembly is maneuvered toward the open door.
The sculptor was up all night, again. Sleep will come later.
The sailor has a tie that completes his military-issue uniform. He and the factory worker have eyelids now, welded into place beneath the miniature rail spikes curved into grimly furrowed eyebrows. Everyone’s fingers have nails.
It’s time to go.
The trio has come home — almost, anyway. They’re taking a final ride by forklift to the awaiting pad, for one last appointment with the welder’s torch.
Their surface has been covered in a high-tech, rust-colored protective finish. It’s almost as if they’ve been out there the whole time. Real rust would be unacceptable; it could cause them to come tumbling down.
Some 20 tons of concrete have solidified several feet into the ground alongside the rails just west of Loomis Street. The base is a tiny bit narrower than what was specified, but that happens. The crew will make it work. It’ll be ready when the people come to see it five days from now.
Fred Barker is there. He’s been great. He’s still not pushing Kuhn to come back to his day job.
“It’s been, ‘Paul, chase your dreams. You’ve always got a job at Indigenous Railroad Services,’” the artist says. “So I feel like this is my time to do this.”
For the story of the sculpture’s April 26 dedication, see “A tribute at Loomis Street,” at napersun.com.