Don Koehler has been known for many things over the course of his 80 years.
He is a former schoolteacher, a father, grandfather, an ex cruise ship dance instructor, a self-proclaimed devout bachelor and a lover of collectibles.
But the one thing he would really like to be known as is an artist.
“I had a teenager with spiky hair once tell me that I’m not a hobbyist, I’m an artist,” he said from his Dunedin condo. “I liked to hear that. I think I am an artist.”
What Koehler does is create original and intriguing works in the form of customized model train flat cars, a hobby he has persued passionately for the past dozen years.
Koehler started out making holiday themed model trains with his then girlfriend and displaying them outside his lakefront home in Massachusetts.
After moving to Florida a couple of years ago he ran short of outdoor space, so he moved his hobby indoors onto display tables, and his trains have been displayed at area shows and museums, including MOSI in Tampa.
But a suggestion from one of his granddaughters spurred him to aim his hobby in a different direction.
“We went to Solomon’s Castle in Bradenton and she said ‘Grandpa, why don’t you do something fun like that?’” he said of the home of the renowned sculptor, Howard Solomon. “So I came up with the idea of the pun train.”
The pun train uses flat cars to depict punny wordplay. It is currently on display at the Safety Harbor Public Library, where officials there say the exhibit is drawing rave reviews from kids and parents alike.
“The families have really enjoyed it,” children’s librarian Anastasia Underwood said. “The kids look at the cars and then the parents try to help them guess what each one means.”
While Koehler says he will keep creating his holiday trains and pun cars – he currently has five full trains and 42 pun cars – no matter what happens, what he would really like is to be discovered and be able to display his art in public regularly.
“I want to get in a real train museum…but for now I’m concentrating on art shows. The problem is, I’m not considered an artist!” he said.
“I want to say to those people, hey, I have more talent than you do. My canvas is a flat car on rails.”
Koehler's exhibit will be on display at the library through the end of the month. His trains can also be seen at area museums and model train shows hosted by the GulfCoast Garden Railroaders. For more information or to book one of his trains for an event, contact Don Koehler at 727-531-1270.