By Sara Cooke
Nature Connects® Art with LEGO® Bricks, an award-winning exhibit making its way around the country, will soon be coming to Fayetteville where the Cape Fear Botanical Garden will act as host.
This exhibit, which includes 27 larger than life sculptures, ranging in size from mere inches to a five-foot bumblebee and an eight-foot tall hummingbird, was built with a total of more than 500,000—that’s a whopping half a million!—colorful LEGO bricks.
Renowned New York artist and best-selling children’s book author Sean Kenney, who calls himself “a professional kid,” is responsible. He has been using LEGO bricks to design and create contemporary sculptures for high-profile clients, major corporations and venues around the globe for over 10 years. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, PBS Arts, BBC Arts, NHK Japan, ABC World News, HGTV, ELLE, Wired and more, and after a lifetime of building for fun, Kenney decided to turn his hobby into a career and began creating his large-scale artwork.
“To me, LEGO pieces are a creative medium,” he says, “like a pencil, clay or paint, LEGO pieces are simple enough for a three-year-old, but versatile enough to create serious, thought-provoking, beautiful works of art.”
He says that while fundamentally LEGOs are a children's toy, unlike play-dough or finger paint, LEGO pieces retain their shape, which offers children who play with them a direct connection. “This also gives the children a common bond with the art or even the artist,” he said.
The process behind creating each sculpture is different for Kenney. “For example, the design of the hummingbird sculpture in my Nature Connects show just popped into my head when I
heard the word ‘hummingbird’ in a conversation. 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.” Kenney spent about four weeks designing and planning that piece, researching images of hummingbirds in nature, choosing the perfect colors and designing the steel reinforcements. It then took him over five weeks to build. “It is one of my favorite sculptures!”
In terms of largest quantity of LEGO bricks, the monarch butterfly, with a wingspan of eight feet, is definitely the winner, ringing in at a total of 60,549 LEGO pieces. However, Kenney says the majority of the work and bricks went into the milkweed plant that the butterfly is feeding from.
“I’m thrilled that this exhibit is coming to Fayetteville,” says Meg Suraci, Cape Fear Botanical Garden’s Marketing Director. “Nature Connects has been breaking attendance records around the world since 2012. It’s exciting to anticipate visitors driving from all over the state and travelers coming off I-95 to see our beautiful Garden.”
Nature Connects is touring the United States and will travel abroad through 2020. The exhibits are immensely popular, and Kenney continues to add new sculptures to the show to expand it, trying to “keep it fresh.” Suraci says she is looking forward to helping bring an exhibit with this caliber to the Fayetteville community, and hopes that local children will enjoy Kenney’s work as much as children around the country have.
LEGO pieces aren’t designed to be outside all the time, so Kenney and his team take great precaution to ensure they’ll withstand the elements. Every sculpture is reinforced with a metal frame inside, and the metal frame is welded to a flat metal base that can be bolted or staked down to the ground. This helps keep it rigid in transport as well as in inclement weather.
“The sculptures are also glued brick-by-brick as we build them,” Kenney says, “Once the sculptures are done they're sprayed with a UV-protectant chemical, similar to what's used on car windshields or sunglasses, to protect the LEGO pieces from becoming brittle or yellowing.” The completed sculptures are then transported in custom-built foam-padded museum-quality exhibition crates from garden to garden.
“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 sculpture 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. Although the show has been on the road for five years, none of the artwork has been broken or needed to be replaced. Building giant LEGO sculptures is very different from building small model he says, because his large sculptures usually need to be braced with internal steel armatures, or mounted to wood or metal bases. All of Kenney’s creations are glued so they can withstand their own weight, as well as the rigors of shipping and public display.
“I love working on large projects!” Kenney says, referring to the scale of his exhibit. “They're fun because they require a lot of creative planning, a lot of building and they always end up eliciting a big ‘wow' from both parents and kids.”
The Cape Fear Botanical Garden’s self-proclaimed mission is “to transform people’s relationship with plants and the natural world.” The sculptures, displayed throughout the Garden, will be shown alongside interpretive panels promoting environmental stewardship, conservation and connecting children to the natural world around them.
“Fundamentally the show is about connections,” Michi Yahata, Kenney’s Studio Director, explains. “Much as LEGO pieces connect, everything in Nature is connected in an intricate balance.” She says that Kenney feels it is important to him that each individual sculpture attempt to illustrate some of these "connections" found in nature, whether it's a fox hunting a rabbit, a hummingbird feeding on a trumpet flower, baby ducklings following their parents on a walk or squirrels raiding a bird feeder as the birds stand by helpless to stop them.
“Other showcase the beauty of nature,” she says, “like the giant seven-foot tall rose or the five-foot praying mantis.” There's also a life-sized lawn mower that visitors often mistake for the real thing “which is good for a laugh, but also shows humankind's connection to nature.”
Kenney explains the tie between his artwork and nature: “Just as LEGO pieces interconnect, everything in nature is interconnected in a delicate balance...Nature Connects is foremost an educational platform and secondarily a means of artistic expression.”
Suraci adds, “To complement the exhibit, there will fun and educational games for families, hands-on building stations and design competitions.” Suraci also notes that there will be “pop-up” activities throughout the course of the exhibit.
“Viewing the exhibit is an opportunity to appreciate both nature and the sculptures as something beautiful,” Suraci said. “Seeing people, especially children, become inspired or excited by an experience in the Garden—be it an art exhibit, a concert, or learning about plants and animals—brings me joy.”
Nature Connects at the Cape Fear Botanical Garden runs from September 30, 2016 through January 8, 2017.
Visit the Garden’s website at capefearbg.org or check out their Facebook page. Learn more about Nature Connects at seankenney.com.