Our Neighbors.... Chris Kilbane

By night, Chris Kilbane inspects railroad cars for Canadian National Railroad. By day, at his home studio in Esko, Kilbane is the creator behind the towering sculptures of Achill Winds Metal Art.

Chris Kilbane sands down a piece of metal to use on his latest project, tentatively titled by his daughter, "It's hip to be square," on Monday in his home studio in Esko. Kilbane has been creating sculptures and other metal art since he learned to weld in high school. Lisa Baumann/

By night, Chris Kilbane inspects railroad cars for Canadian National Railroad. By day, at his home studio in Esko, Kilbane is the creator behind the towering sculptures of Achill Winds Metal Art.

According to his railroad colleagues, his art sets him apart from the "typical" railroad employee.

"My co-worker once paid me what I consider to be a high compliment," Kilbane said. "He saw my sculptures and told me I wasn't a 'normal' car inspector."

To them, Kilbane stands out particularly when he leaves some midnight shifts only to change into nicer clothes and head to Minneapolis for a gallery opening featuring his work.

"I took the crummiest hours at the job just so I could work on art and do stuff in Minneapolis if need be."


And work on his art he does.

"It keeps me busy and serves as a kind of therapy," he said with a smile. "I used to drink and a lot of my family has had issues with alcohol. I quit drinking about 20 years ago and art is my outlet."

Anyone driving on Canosia Road near Esko regularly will be privy to one Kilbane's latest works, but the sculpture garden in back is the real sight to behold.

As far as the eye can see, works of art abound, from small metal bugs, to the metal sun hanging on the side of an outbuilding, to "The Visitor" in the backyard - a painted metal sculpture over six feet tall that resembles some kind of alien bird looking to the sky.

Kilbane rarely stops to admire his past works, however.

"I've made so much stuff it is stunning," he said. "Sometimes, when my studio is full of work after a winter of working a lot, I just want it moved out so I can start the creation process again."

If Kilbane isn't inspecting railroad cars, sleeping, or moving one of his giant sculptures, he's likely in his studio, a giant pole barn filled with metal pieces and welding equipment.

"It's not all me, though," he said. "My wife and daughters handle the business and marketing part; I'm just out in the shop making stuff."


Kilbane's creations were born out of his welding skills and but it was a twist of fate that got him into welding.

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Kilbane was the third of nine children in an Irish Catholic family. His business name, Achill, comes from an island his family hails from off the coast of Ireland.

As a teen, Kilbane took a trip with some friends over the summer but wasn't quite ready to come home when school started in the fall.

"Me and my buddies were camping in Colorado," he said. "As kind of a rough-and-tumble kid, I had signed up for a new vocational school through high school and was going to do carpentry like my grandfather."

It didn't quite work out that way when Kilbane failed to show on the first day.

"By the time I came back, there were only two options available, and welding was the better of the two," he said. "Just that little decision [to miss the start of school] changed the course of ... whatever."

Right away, Kilbane was using his new welding skills to "make cool little art things."

Kilbane's father, who had been stationed in China as a Marine at the end of World War II, became interested in Asian artwork and asked Kilbane to make him an ornamental knife blade.


"It was my first real project, although it was really a fake knife because making knives is another art form altogether," he said. "My dad wanted the blade to attach to a jade handle. But the first time I attempted it, he gave me crap about it, I couldn't believe it! We had a good time together working on it."

Kilbane remembers that time fondly, because his father died just a few years later, when Kilbane was 19.

"He was the one who took us to museums and I still have the collection of artist biographies that he had," he said.

Kilbane said he stayed in Cleveland for awhile after his father's death and tried to help his mother and siblings the best he could.

In 1978, he and a friend moved to Phoenix. There he had a shop and continued creating art. Some of his friends had it displayed in their homes and next to their swimming pools.

"That work was pretty crude," Kilbane said. "I was only in my 20s then."

He also got a job welding - installing cranes on power trucks.

Kilbane met his wife through the company, too, although in a roundabout way.


"My brother told us he met this girl at my company's party and that she was having a party the next night," he recalled. "I met Linda there and she was from Minnesota."

The two married about five years later, on New Year's Eve, and eventually decided to move to Minnesota.

"Part of the reason for my move to Phoenix was because my father had the dream to move west and own land," he said. "But in Phoenix, I had really only moved from one city to another. When I saw Minnesota for the first time and went on a trip fishing and camping on Isle Royale, I was hooked."

By then the couple had two daughters, Theresa and Kelly, and the four of them moved to the Hermantown area, where Linda had grown up. After about a year, they bought 20 acres of land in Esko and have lived there ever since. Their third daughter, Kate, was born soon after they purchased the house.

Through the company in Arizona, Kilbane was able to find work in Minnesota, but when that ended after six years, he found the railroad. He continued with his art, but also helped raise his girls, who were very involved in equestrian competitions.

"My daughters are champions," he raved. "I have trophies coming out of my ears from those girls."

He has incorporated horses and other animals into his art as well, but it wasn't until a visit to his mother about 15 years ago that he got serious about his art.

"I hadn't seen her for awhile and she just looked older to me," he said. "There was a piece my friend had wanted me to do and I had put it off for about three years at that point. After that visit, I came right home and got serious. It reminded me to go for it and to do what I love."


His goals today, prompted by his wife and daughters, include getting his art out into public spaces and into galleries statewide.

"I've had some luck in Edina with exposure, which is big," he said about his work being displayed in the affluent Minneapolis suburb. "Hopefully Minneapolis, Cleveland, Chicago. I figure I've got at least 10 good years left to push it."

Kilbane's work can be seen on Aug. 15 at the Festival of Fine Art and Craft at the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth and in galleries throughout the state. For more information visit Kilbane's Web site at or on Facebook by searching for Achill Winds Metal Art.

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