Sean Kenney vividly recalls sneaking a long-coveted Lego set — an early birthday present — into bed on the night before he turned 5 and putting pieces together by moonlight.
"Soon, my parents heard 'Lego noises,' and started coming back to my room," Kenney recalls. "Convinced I could keep [playing], I turned the light on and kept building... but there was no fooling Dad."
Other kids who grew up during Lego's early heyday get nostalgic over the fantastic Lego kits of the 1980s and '90s — like "Deep Freeze Defender," No. 6971, or "Secret Space Voyager," No. 6862 — just like Kenney still does for his old favorite: "Exxon Gas Station," No. 6375.
But the lasting influence of Legos goes a little deeper with Kenney, now 39. He currently works as professional Lego artist in New York City, building larger-than-life sculptures from the tiny interlocking bricks. In 2005, he became the first "Lego Certified Professional," a title bestowed upon only 12 other people around the world who are recognized by the brickmaker for their professional work using its products. The title is not tied to a job or even a sponsorship with Lego, but it does allow Kenney to buy bricks in bulk directly from Lego's factory. He often places orders that weigh a ton or more.
More than two dozen of the renowned artist's pieces are being unveiled at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture this weekend as part of his nationally touring sculpture exhibit, Nature Connects. The exhibit's stop here runs through Feb. 7, 2016, with local children's Lego sculptures being displayed alongside Kenney's art as part of a community contest.
The MAC's director of museum experience John Muredo-Burich, who joined its staff just under a year ago, has already seen how mesmerizing Nature Connects can be to visitors of all ages when the show came to the museum where he previously worked. His goals for the exhibit's run in Spokane are twofold — to host a community-oriented exhibit, hence the contest, and to use the playfulness of the toy-based sculptures to teach kids about the importance of protecting and preserving the environment.
A week before Nature Connects opens, about 40 contest entry forms have been turned in. The museum is awarding cash prizes to three winners in each age group, with an overall "best in show" award to be voted upon by visitors to the exhibit.
To promote the exhibit and bring out that fuzzy feeling of Lego nostalgia, Moredo-Burich and museum staff took on a project to create three, 7-foot-tall Lego minifigs — short for minifigure, Lego's word for its revered humanoid characters that go with the bricks. Using a 3D scan of an actual minifig (about an inch and a half tall) and a computer-controlled cutting machine, the pieces were cut out of a foam material. The three ironically massive minifigs are displayed outside the MAC's main entrance.
"They're exactly like Lego makes them, just giant in size," Muredo-Burich says. "We were thinking they might be pretty unique on the planet," he adds, aside from massive reproductions at the Legoland theme parks.
Some of the surviving pieces from Kenney's memorable fifth birthday present are displayed in a place of prominence inside his 4,000-square-foot Brooklyn studio. This memento of what would eventually become his unlikely career are now part of the artist's 5 million piece Lego collection.
These millions of plastic bricks and specialty pieces are carefully sorted into a 35-foot by 12-foot wall of clear bins, waiting to become a part of something greater, like the centerpieces of Nature Connects: a life-size bison made from 45,143 pieces, a five-foot-wide swallowtail butterfly using 37,481 pieces and a six-foot-long orange fox, made from 17,547 Legos. About 20 employees — painters, sculptors, animators, architects, fabricators and other creatives — collaborate with Kenney to bring his artistic visions to life.
"I am the kind of person who needs to make things, so I've structured the business aspects of my studio such that I can devote the majority of my time designing and building sculptures," Kenney says.
Though the 5-year-old Sean Kenney never would have imagined he'd eventually build with Legos as a job, the adult Kenney didn't knowingly seek out what he does now, either. It just sort of happened, as many creative endeavors do. Tired of being tethered to a desk, Kenney left an unfulfilling tech career in the early aughts. Not long after, he caught the attention of the Lego Group for his hobby builds posted online.
Having completed Lego sculptures of animals, buildings, people, plants, insects, functional pieces of furniture and countless other objects — bikes, books, xylophones, cars, baseball stadiums — is there anything Kenney can't build with Legos?
"Nothing tasty, at least," he jokes.
Yet as an art form, Legos are no different than any other medium, he believes.
"There's something simple and basic about the way two pieces just pop together. It can literally be understood by a baby yet can stay relevant for a lifetime," Kenney explains. "Just because you have a pencil doesn't mean you've ever reached the limits of what can be drawn, and we've been drawing since the cavemen. I don't think Lego bricks are any different." ♦
Nature Connects: LEGO Brick Sculptures • Sat, Nov. 14 through Feb. 7, 2016 • $5-$10 admission • Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture • 2316 W. First • northwestmuseum.org • 456-3931