If You Build It...

Sean Kenney

by Julie Clay

“I have over 2.5 million
® bricks in my studio.”
REDISCOVER YOUR INNER CHILD with ‘Nature Connects, Arts with LEGO® Bricks,’ the current exhibit at Naples Botanical Garden featuring the Lego® artwork of certified artist, Sean Kenney. On display through May 11, Kenney's creations can be found throughout the gardens. From an eight-foot tall hummingbird to a seven-foot rose, his creations are awe inspiring. I caught up with Sean as he was preparing for this exhibition, currently touring botanical gardens throughout the country.

What was the inspiration that made you go from Lego® enthusiast to full-fledged artist and creator? That moment when you made the decision to follow your passion.

Before I became a LEGO® professional, I worked as a cartoonist, a graphic artist, and a website designer. I spent 10 years designing website interfaces and web user experiences, and I wore a suit every day to work. But the whole time, my ‘inner child’ was itching to get out and play! Every night after work I would go home and play with my LEGO® toys. Sometimes while I was still in my suit!

One day I was sitting in my office in a cold-looking, quiet, boring, 40-story glass skyscraper on Park Avenue in New York City. I was sitting at my desk but I wasn't working; I was daydreaming about beautiful architecture and bright LEGO® colors and thinking about what I would build with LEGO® bricks when I got home. It was about then that realized I should follow my dreams. So I stood up, took off my tie and walked straight out – just like that, in the middle of the day. And I never looked back.

How big is your Lego® collection?

I currently have over 2.5 million LEGO® bricks in my studio. It's hard to say how many models I've built – certainly hundreds, maybe even thousands throughout my whole life. In any given year, I might create a dozen or so commissioned pieces, a few dozen small gift-sized models and lots of sculptural pieces simply for my own edification. When creating models for my books, I make hundreds more than are ever eventually published. I go through about 250,000 to 400,000 LEGO® pieces every year, and keep over 2 million on hand at any given time.

What is the process you use to go from inspiration to creation of your works?

Each sculpture can have a different process. For example – the design of the Hummingbird sculpture in my ‘Nature Connects’ show 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 4 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 5 plus weeks building it.

I don't use computers 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! When I'm designing a model, I gather as many photographs or drawings of the subject as I can, and then use graph paper to plan out the basic shape and size. After that, I start building a prototype, using my graphed plans as a guide. 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 – often taking sections apart and re-building them! Once I have a prototype that I like, I'll rebuild it using the prototype as a template.

Depending on the size of the sculpture, it can take anywhere from a few days to weeks or even months! A life-size human head (of no one in particular) can take about a day to prototype, but if the head is a model of a specific person it can take three days.

What was the inspiration for your current exhibit, ‘Nature Connects’?

Much as LEGO® pieces connect, everything in Nature is connected in an intricate balance. The show was developed in conjunction with Iowa State University's Reiman Gardens in 2011 and has been on tour since early 2012.

Some sculptures indicate the relationship between elements of nature, like a fox hunting a rabbit or lotus, koi, frog, and water platter sharing space in a pond. 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. I love the way it came out. Set outdoors and in a bed of tulips really makes the sculpture shine.

What have been some of your more challenging pieces to create?

The most challenging thing is to create curved shapes with those hard little plastic rectangles. Making something round and curvy like a shoe or a ball can be tricky. But the most complex thing is to create people's faces. I was commissioned to build sculptural portraits of two brothers and it took an entire summer. We all read so much into facial expressions that you can move one piece and suddenly a face changes from looking depressed to looking bored. I often need to build and re-build a face many times to get the subtlety of the subject's character and their expression just right. Unlike traditional sculpture, you can't just carve out a shape or add to a surface. You have to think ahead as you're building upwards linearly.

What have been some of your favorite sculptures to build?

Perhaps my favorite model is a 50,000 piece city inspired by New York's historic Greenwich Village. It was a true labor of love, assembled part-time over the course of 6 months. The model has intricate details everywhere you look, from street vendors and parking meters to historic buildings, high rises, taxicabs, and graffiti. Even the LEGO® people in the city are behaving like the combination of locals and tourists you'll find on any New York City street corner. The model gained a lot of popularity in 2003. It was placed on display at an international design gallery in Chelsea. It was displayed at an event honoring Freedom Tower architect Daniel Libeskind, and it has been broadcast in TV and news around the world.

I'm also very partial to a small sculpture I made called ’Success.” It's an editorial statement on our society's overall opinion on what it means to be ‘successful’ – and a literal depiction of myself before I left my former career to pursue creating art with LEGO® bricks full-time.
Have you seen the Lego Movie, and if so, what is your impression? Come to think of it, were you involved in that movie at all?

Yes, I have seen it! Warner Bros. was kind enough to treat me and my team to a prescreening of the film about a week before it was released and we all really enjoyed it. I was not involved in the making of the film, but everyone that was involved did an amazing job! Definitely a must-see.

What is your relationship with the LEGO® company like?

I have a fantastic relationship with the LEGO® Group! As I mentioned, I've been playing with LEGO® toys ever since I was a little kid. Even as I entered my teen years and my adulthood, I never stopped building! Eventually, people started commissioning LEGO® sculptures from me or asking me to attend events. At the same time I started having a good relationship with The LEGO® Group, participating at events or working on projects together. I even started up a LEGO® fan community.

It turned out that everyone at The LEGO® Group – from the call center to the CEO – had their eye on what I’d been doing. We realized that if The LEGO® Group could somehow officially recognize and support people like me I could reach even more people and spread the word about LEGO® coolness even further. From that idea, the idea of LEGO® Certified Professionals was born – and I became the first member. It's now about nine years later and there are 13 of us around the world. We all know each other very well, keep on top of each other's work, do projects together, and learn from each other by sharing our experiences.

The LEGO® Group is always keeping their eyes peeled for who might become a Certified Professional. They select people who are doing great things with LEGO® products as a full-time or part-time business. •

Nature Connects
Art with LEGO® Bricks
thru May 11
Botanical Garden
4820 Bayshore Drive • Naples
daily 9am-5pm (Tuesdays 8am-5pm)
with admission

March-April 2014

The design of the Humming bird
sculpture just ‘popped’ in my
head the minute someone said
humming bird. I immediately
had this vision of something
that you could walk under,
suspended, as if by magic.

“Depending on the size of
the sculpture, it can take
anywhere from a few days
to weeks or even months!”