It’s been 10 years since Sean Kenney left a secure but boring office job in a New York City skyscraper to embrace his inner child and pursue an art career based on his love of playing with Legos.
This week, an ambitious exhibit by Kenney with 13 displays of large, nature-inspired sculptures made from Legos opens at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. “Nature Connects: Art with LEGO® Bricks,” opens Friday and continues through Aug. 30 in the arboretum gardens.
Kenney said the show was developed in conjunction with Iowa State University’s Reiman Gardens in 2011 and has been on tour since early 2012. Previous versions of “Nature Connects” have toured gardens and zoos across North America.
The show at the arboretum is a new version of the traveling collection, one of numerous touring exhibits of buildings, people, plants and animals all created out of Legos by Kenney and a team of artisans in his New York City studio. Kenney said they go through 250,000 to 400,000 Lego pieces a year and keep more than 2 million on hand at any given time.
Kenney, 38, worked as a cartoonist and a website designer before taking up his Lego art career. “Every night I would go home and play with my Lego toys,” he said. One day at his office he caught himself daydreaming about what he would build with Legos when he got home.
“I stood up, took off my tie and walked straight out — just like that, in the middle of the day,” he said. “And I never looked back.”
The 26 sculptures at the arboretum took about three days to install and include a giant snapping turtle, a hummingbird and a deer family. One sculpture of a monarch butterfly has more than 60,000 Lego pieces, Kenney said. “It has a wingspan of 8 feet, but the majority of the work and bricks went into the milkweed plant that the butterfly is feeding from,” he said.
Kenney said he doesn’t use computers to design his sculptures. “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,” he said. “Once I have a prototype that I like, I’ll rebuild it, glued, using the prototype as a template.”
Each brick is individually glued, and some larger sculptures have custom-built interior metal frameworks, Kenney said. He said it can take anywhere from a few days to weeks or even months to complete a work.
“Fundamentally, the show is about connections,” Kenney said. “Much as Lego pieces connect, everything in nature is connected in an intricate balance.”
The exhibit is free with arboretum gate admission ($12 ages 13 and older, free for ages 12 and younger and free for members).
The exhibit also includes free hands-on activity sessions in the arboretum’s Sensory Garden open classroom from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the following Saturdays: May 16 and 30, June 13 and 27, July 11 and 25 and Aug. 8 and 22.
The exhibit is sponsored by Wells Fargo, C.H. Robinson, Park Dental, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, Emerson Process Management, Wagner’s and Great River Energy. Community partners are Creative Kidstuff, the Bell Museum and kiddywampus.