There is more to Legos than little yellow men with square bodies living in a world of tiny blocks.
The toy that invites young minds to imagine and create is the medium of choice for artist Sean Kenney.
Inside his Long Island City workshop, koi fish leap into the air, lily pads the size of tractor-trailer wheels stand on black platforms and boxes upon boxes of two million unused bricks line a wall, color coordinated and waiting to become part of Kenney’s newest creation.
“Working with Lego for a living is a lot of fun,” he said. “I get to play with toys and make people smile; what better job could there be?”
After working at a desk job for 10 years, Kenney took a huge risk and became one of 13 professionals who use Lego pieces to design and build commissioned works, personalized gifts and contemporary art.
Legos have been around since 1934, when the Lego company was founded in Denmark.
Over the years, the bricks have maintained their popularity with both boys and girls but recently, a Lego craze has emerged.
Kenney said there are a number of contributing factors to the Lego obsession, the most recent being “The Lego Movie,” based on the toy world. It was released last month and generated $30 million during its opening weekend
“Obviously ‘The Lego Movie’ has sparked a new interest but I also think it’s because Lego toys are great; they really get kids’ minds going,” Kenney said. “Children become creative in a way that is very hands-on and real. Other crafty activities like drawing and finger painting do the same thing, but with Lego toys, when the child is done creating, they can also play with their creation!”
The Brooklyn resident sticks to these childlike creative roots when building even his largest piece — a life-sized polar bear made from 95,000 pieces.
“I don’t use a computer to plan out my sculptures, it’s far too complex and, if you ask me, it takes a lot of the fun out of it,” Kenney said. “There’s a lot of visualization required, and I often have to step back and examine the model from all sides as it’s coming together. Once I have a prototype that I like, I’ll rebuild it, glued, using the prototype as a template.”
Sculptures can take anywhere from a few days to weeks or even months to be completed, depending on the size and complexity of the work.
But the hardest part about building a Lego sculpture is surprising.
“The most challenging thing is to create curved shapes with those hard, little plastic rectangles,” Kenney said. “Making something round and curvy like a shoe or ball can be tricky, but the most complex thing is to create people’s faces.”
Kenney creates Lego lamps and custom portraits based on submitted photos, selling them on his website.
“Lego models and computer screens have something in common, “Kenney said about building portraits. “They’re just a collection of dots, assembled to look like something else. If you zoom in on a photo, you get a blocky collection of dots. Duplicating that same pattern with Lego bricks can create a photo-realistic model.”
Right now, the ‘professional kid’ is traveling around the world for his award-winning, international touring show, “Nature Connects.”
The exhibit will travel through 2016 and was developed in conjunction with Iowa State University’s Reiman Gardens in 2011.
“Some sculptures indicate the relationship between elements of nature, like a fox hunting a rabbit or lotus, koi, frog and water splattering sharing space in a pond,” Kenney explained. “Others showcase the beauty of nature, like a giant, 7-foot-tall rose and a 5-foot-wide butterfly. There’s also a life-sized lawn mower that visitors often mistake for the real thing, which is just good for a laugh.”
As if that weren’t enough Kenney is also working on his seventh children’s book and operates the world’s largest online Lego fan community.
“I’ve always been obsessed with Lego toys and I’ve always loved to create,” he said. “Before sculpting Lego professionally, I was a cartoonist, graphic artist and web developer, and I often find ways to incorporate my cartooning skills into my sculptures or my books. It’s the best of both worlds, so I can honestly say I never feel restricted.”