A couple hundred feet above Long Island City, Sean Kenney is hard at work – with LEGO® bricks. The little plastic pieces are all around him. They’re spread out on tables and organized, by shape and color, in clear plastic bins that take up a wall of his 23rd Street studio. But most of all, the building blocks are apparent in the sculptural stacks and arrangements that tower over his loft.
It’s immediately apparent that Kenney is still that slack-jawed little kid whose dream vacation was a trip to the LEGO aisle of a Toys Я Us. His age?
“I’m 33 – and a half,” he said with a chuckle, alluding to his youthful spirit. It’s as if Kenney knows, all too well, how lucky he is to spend his days the way he does, surrounded by his 1.5 million LEGO pieces.
It’s been eight years since Kenney quit his desk job and ventured fulltime into the world of his childhood, when he would spend hours on end drawing and tinkering with LEGO bricks.
“I was always just a LEGO kid,” he explained. “I’d be in high school and asking for a [LEGO] spaceship ages seven to 12.” His parents shrugged and indulged him, Kenney said, and it paid off.
His client list for commissioned LEGO sculptures runs the gamut from Google to Nintendo to Mazda to major TV networks. He’s even crafted a LEGO portrait of reality TV stars Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, and built a model of the New York Stock Exchange, complete with bite-size LEGO people that resemble the marble figureheads on the building’s façade.
But none of that even came close to the scope of his latest project.
In April, Kenney finished his “Creatures of Habitat” installation at the Philadelphia Zoo, featuring 30 life-size animals. The LEGO creations range “from birds the size of your hand to a polar bear that’s eight feet long,” Kenney said.
The 300-pound bear alone took 95,000 LEGO pieces and 1,100 hours to complete.
“It was the longest and most visually complicated thing I’ve done to date,” Kenney said of the entire project, which took six months to finish and is the zoo’s premier exhibition for 2010. “Creating any organic shape with little plastic rectangles is really the trickiest thing you can do.”
Above all, LEGO is Kenney’s artistic medium. It’s his form of expression, albeit one that is “really tactile and really kind of cool,” he admitted.
Kenney says working with LEGO pieces gives him a unique connection with people who can relate to his work much more than they can “the austere presence of a bronze sculpture in a park.”
Kenney emphasizes that every LEGO piece in his repertoire is standard, “just regular off-the-shelf.”
“I’m not any more special than the eight-year-old,” he said, but his artistic process might be a little more complicated.
Kenney begins most projects with a drawing on graph paper, which he custom-makes himself. Next, he builds a cross-section of, say, the head of a gorilla, ultimately creating a “bronze” casting of the sculpture by gluing all of the pieces together in the final model.
Despite the complexity of his work, Kenney is all about transparency and encouraging those little wide-eyed kids, like the one he used to be – and most certainly still is.
He’s the founder of MOCpages.com, a seven-year-old social networking web site devoted to LEGO enthusiasts. With 50,000 contributing members and six million monthly visitors, it’s the largest LEGO fan community in the world. It’s also Kenney’s way of telling kids, ‘You can do this, too!’
“What more can you really ask for than to inspire kids and make them use their imagination?” he asked, noting that he’s received his fair share of crayon-drawn fan mail. “It just really makes me feel good.”