AMES, Iowa — Let’s start with the numbers: 27 sculptures made from more than 400,000 Lego bricks have been installed at Reiman Gardens in Ames. They’ll be on display for the next six months.
“It’s actually about 410,000 if you wanted to count them,” the New York sculptor Sean Kenney said.
He and a team of studio assistants built the “Nature Connects” collection — a 7-foot rose, a bumblebee the size of a St. Bernard — in his Manhattan studio over the course of the last six months. Their collective 5,000 work hours would have stretched into 2 ½ years if the artist had assembled the pieces by himself.
Kenney does this kind of thing full-time. But this was a big project, even for him.
“Building a hummingbird that’s 9 feet tall with thin little wings way up over your head is not necessarily as easy as sitting on the carpet making a fire truck in your living room,” he said.
But the process is pretty much the same. The artist sits down with a big pile of the plastic bricks and starts building. He doesn’t design with a computer and doesn’t use any special pieces you couldn’t find at the store. It’s just the basic plastic bits, reinforced with hidden steel rods and a bucket of glue.
Each sculpture was packed into a custom-built crate and loaded into a semi truck for the trip to Ames.
“It’s an art in itself to produce crates for these things. Just like moving a Ming vase halfway across the world, you want to make sure these things don’t break,” he said. “They’re sturdy, but the New Jersey Turnpike has a lot of potholes.”
The truck arrived last week, and the sculptures were placed throughout the 14-acre site on the Iowa State University campus. A Lego gardener tends a bed of vegetables. A Lego goldfish jumps in the pond, near a Lego frog and a Lego water lily. A Lego bison grazes in the prairie.
They look pixelated up close, like images from a 1980s video game that landed in the real world. From a distance, their surfaces seem surprisingly smooth.
“It’s funny to talk about Legos as a ‘medium,’ ” Kenney said, “but they’re all about texture and form.”
The artist has always loved the tiny plastic bricks, which were developed in Denmark in the 1940s. He played with them as a kid and later when he grew up, when he needed to unwind from his desk job. He tinkered almost every night, often while still wearing his suit.
Once, he built a model of himself, sitting listlessly in his cubicle, and titled it “Success.”
“It reflected very much how I felt at the time, before I decided to just take off my tie and pursue my dream,” he said.
Soon enough, that dream caught the attention of the Lego bigwigs in Denmark, who in 2005 named him the company’s first certified artist. (There are now 13 worldwide.) He still works independently and buys his own supplies, but the arrangement, he said, “makes it a little easier for me to buy 20,000 yellow pieces all at the same time.”
In the years since, Kenney has created Lego artwork for “major corporations, grandmas, celebrities, art galleries — everybody,” he said. His clients include biggies like Google and Mazda, and his work has been featured in the New York Times, on “Good Morning America” and in a full-length documentary.
The producers at the NBC sitcom “30 Rock” called him when they needed a Lego train for the set. The organizers at an international toy fair hired him to make 150 Lego Chewbaccas from the “Star Wars” movies.
“There is no shortage of fun and wacky things that people want,” he said.
The call from Reiman Gardens came when its leaders decided a Lego display would fit into the gardens’ 2012 theme, “Some Assembly Required,” which highlights building blocks in science and nature. They commissioned the 27 sculptures and have arranged for them to go on national tour after they leave Ames this fall. Their next stop is at Powell Gardens in Kansas City.
Director Teresa McLaughlin expects the sculptures to draw big crowds, bigger even than the ones that doubled attendance three years ago for a display of dinosaur sculptures.
“We think we’ll beat that,” she said. “Everyone has a Lego story, even if it’s just about stepping on them on the carpet with bare feet.”
The sculptures have already caught the attention of area Lego clubs as well as the engineering department at Iowa State University, where students often use Legos for class projects.
“Everybody can connect to it,” Kenney said. “No pun intended.”
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com
Visit sculptor Sean Kenney’s website at www.seankenney.com.
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