He’s not employed by LEGO® but Sean Kenney is probably their best sales and marketing person, by association. He can rattle off LEGO’s history (the company started in 1958) but for more than 10 years, the award-winning LEGO® Bricks artist has been writing his own history. With a 17-person staff in New York, he creates nature-inspired, life-size (and larger) sculptures completely out of LEGO parts. More than 35 of Kenney’s sculptures are currently on display in a traveling exhibit at Denver Zoo through November 1 in “Nature Connects, Art with LEGO® Bricks” brought to you by The Goddard School. Ten of the pieces were specially commissioned by Denver Zoo for this exhibit.
“I was always a super-LEGO fan,” says Kenney. “And I was always an artist, a graphic designer. I just merged my two interests together.” When I told him about the super-deluxe set of LEGOs I had as a child and then passed onto my children, he asked, in all seriousness, “Why did you ever stop playing with them?” He clearly didn’t.
LEGO is aware of Kenney (he’s their best customer, buying all of the pieces he needs, in bulk). The company has called on him to help with sculptures for certain LEGO events. But Kenney says he wouldn’t want to be financially backed by the company. Describing himself as a “bootstrapper by nature,” he pulls himself up by the bootstraps to do what needs to be done. “If I worked for LEGO, at any point, they could decide they don’t need me anymore or don’t want me to do this. This way, I control what I do. I’m a small business and they are a large corporation.” He’s happy keeping it that way.
Kenney stands proudly in front of one of his sculptures at Denver Zoo, a life-size mama polar bear with her cubs located, purposefully, around the corner from the live polar bears on exhibit at the zoo. This particular sculpture took three people four months to finish. It has 125,000 pieces and weighs 625 pounds. All of his sculptures are hollow except for 1- to 2-inch-thick walls. The sculptures are supported by metal bars internally and sit on a metal base covered with mulch. A special coating helps protect the sculptures from harmful UV rays that could alter the colors. This is the largest sculpture Kenney has ever made. “You should have seen the looks I got as I wheeled it out the door of my New York studio!” he recalls.
After sketching out designs and planning how to achieve the shapes and colors he is after, Kenney and his crew set to work, gluing each piece in place as they go describing it “like brick and mortar.” The sculptures are made entirely of LEGO parts, even utilizing accessory pieces in different ways. It might be a cauldron from a witches set for a baby polar bear’s eye, or a translucent part from an alien ship layered with colored blocks behind it to create just the right shade for another animal’s eye. Even the animals’ whiskers are fiber optic cables from LEGO sets.
The animals’ faces can be a challenge for Kenney and his crew. In the studio, they stand there, in front of the animals and discuss that maybe one of the eyes looks a little sad or the smile is looking more like a smirk. “It’s very much like any discussion in a fine art studio,” he says. One major difference between Kenney’s works of art and artists working on canvas is that people really, really want to touch his works of art. “LEGOs are so tactile,” Kenney says. “The only mishaps that have ever happened were because of vandalism. No one goes up to a Monet and says, ‘I wonder what that paint feels like’ but they do want to touch the LEGOs.” Touching and climbing are not allowed with any of Kenney’s sculptures.
The sculptor, who has written eight children’s books offering tips and tricks for building with LEGOS, hopes his sculptures will be inspiring. He would like to encourage an appreciation of nature, seeing it in a new way. And he hopes kids will see his sculpture of a polar bear, then go see the real polar bears, then go home and draw them or try to make their own animals with LEGOs. Kenney knows he’s inspiring creativity and a love of animals “in fun ways.” “It’s just a lot less serious, like me.”
“Nature Connects, Art with LEGO® Bricks” is included with zoo admission. Special events are planned throughout October in advance of Halloween, including the unveiling of several new, spooky sculptures. For details, visit www.denverzoo.org.