Parents who think their kids have too many Legos haven’t been to Sean Kenney’s studio.
The Brooklyn-based artist’s Nature Connects exhibit contains over half a million Lego bricks and took approximately 4,700 hours to design and build. It’s been traveling the world since 2012, visiting nearly 100 botanical gardens, arboretums, zoos and science centers across the U.S., Europe and Asia. Sixteen nature-inspired sculptures are currently on display through Nov. 1 at The North Carolina Arboretum — which has hosted the exhibit twice before, most recently in 2016 — and features 14 new works alongside the returning hummingbird and monarch butterfly.
Taking a break from designing additional Nature Connects sculptures and personal projects “that are pushing the boundaries of what [he] thought was possible with the Lego brick as an art medium,” Kenney spoke with Xpress about planning, creating and transporting the exhibit, plus his hopes for people who experience it during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When and how did you get into building Lego sculptures?
I’ve been doing this professionally for over 15 years, but I’ve always loved to create. Even as a young child, drawing and designing were a big part of my life. I was a total “Lego maniac,” and Lego toys were usually the only toys I ever asked for when my birthday would come around each year. They were something that were always there as a way to create and express myself. I kept building Lego models all through childhood and even into my teenage and adult years. My models slowly became more involved and elaborate as I got older, and in 2005 I started building Lego models professionally as my full-time career.
What was the inspiration for the Nature Connects exhibit?
Nature Connects was developed in conjunction with Iowa State University’s Reiman Gardens in 2011 and has been on tour since early 2012. Their director contacted me with the idea of producing an outdoor display for their garden, but after lengthy discussion, we realized it would be better to have the display tour gardens all around the world.
Fundamentally, the show is about connections. Just as Lego pieces interconnect, everything in nature is interconnected in a delicate balance — insects and plants have important relationships; different species of animals have special relationships with each other; animals have connections with their families just like we do. And, of course, people have a connection with nature, whether you’re trimming a bonsai tree, or planting a garden or anything else — you are a part of nature. It’s important to me that each individual sculpture attempt to illustrate the “connections” found in nature, whether a predator-prey relationship, mankind’s relationship with nature or even the parent-child relationships you see in the wild.
What was involved in the planning and creation of the Nature Connects sculptures?
Each sculpture can have a different process. Some sculptures are the results of my creative team brainstorming and sketching for weeks. Others are inspired by watching nature videos online. And sometimes ideas just “pop” into my head from nowhere. For example, the design of the hummingbird sculpture just “popped” in my head the minute someone said “hummingbird.” I immediately had this vision of something that you could actually walk under, suspended as if by magic. Creating a spindly little nose and paper-thin wings built out of chunky Lego pieces seemed like a wonderful challenge and, if done right, something that would look amazing. I spent about four weeks designing and planning this specific piece, researching images of hummingbirds in nature, choosing the perfect colors and designing the internal steel reinforcements, then about five-plus weeks building it.
Depending on the size of the sculpture, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Some of our larger and more detailed sculptures can take nearly a year to design and build. I always want to spend a lot of time making sure it’s perfect.
Where and when were they constructed, and who helped you?
All the sculptures were built in my private studio in Brooklyn between 2011-2020. I have a whole team of artists and helpers that are a big part of creating this show: building and designing models, welding armatures, etc., as well as people that handle the show logistics and installations.
Did you buy the bricks directly from Lego or somewhere else?
I have to purchase my Lego pieces. The Lego Group does not sponsor or endorse me or my work. I did, however, have the privilege of being the first person in the world to whom they sold pieces in bulk.
Which sculptures were particularly challenging to conceive and complete?
One of the most challenging sculptures I’ve ever built is a giant, 7-foot-wide sculpture of a peacock. Not only is the sculpture incredibly large and gravity-defying, but I took the trouble to model and construct the details of every feather, down to the textures of the quills. All of that, combined with the multitude of colors, makes it one of the most visually complex sculptures I’ve ever created.
What’s involved in transporting the sculptures to Asheville?
Installing the show is quite a huge feat. We have three installers and a show director that work together with the local garden’s facilities staff to first determine where each sculptures will be sited and how to best landscape them. Then when the show arrives — it fills an entire 55-foot long tractor-trailer! — the installers use forklifts and Bobcats and pallet jacks to unload the truck and move the sculptures around. Some of the largest sculptures, when crated, weigh over 500 pounds!
Is there glue or anything else holding the sculptures together — or simply the Legos themselves?
All of the sculptures are steel-reinforced, fully glued and then coated with a special UV-protectant lacquer to protect the plastic from the rays of the sun. They’re also bolted down to the ground to protect against weather and vandalism.
With the exhibit being one of the first major social opportunities for local residents since the COVID-19 outbreak, do you feel the sculptures offer a distinct emotional experience or other potentials for personal growth and communal connection that it’s never quite offered before?
COVID-19 has been a hard time for all of us. One of the things that the lockdowns have shown us is that the arts are a critical part of our social well-being. Performance art moved online, Broadway singers united over Zoom video, theatrical movie releases went straight to streaming video services, children’s book authors doodled with kids over lunch, celebrities and political figures hosted read-a-longs, and more. It’s a wonderful demonstration of the fact that when we have nothing else, we always have the arts. And beyond that — we crave the arts. I’m proud that my sculptures are able to be on display for people to enjoy during this time.
Learn more at ncarboretum.org