LEGO for grown-ups

By Columbus Alive
From the December 6, 2012 edition

Let’s journey to 1995. (Bring your Starter jacket? Certainly!) Beanie Babies are fuzzy-wuzzy kings and children and adults alike stock up on the stuffed animals, certain of their great worth and maintained popularity in years to come.

Oops.

Toys are tough. Few brands experience longevity of their prime, especially with adults. Silly Bandz, anyone?

LEGO, however, remains incredibly popular and is used for more than just playtime. Crafters, Google instructions to make LEGO key holders, lamps and countertops. Nerds, you’ll enjoy reading about scientists who stacked LEGO bricks to see how much pressure the bottom brick could withstand before collapsing. Artists, you’ll like Columbus.

The Columbus Museum of Art’s “Think Outside the Brick” exhibit is composed of work from internationally recognized artists all the way down to Columbus children, all made from or about LEGO.

“The core idea of the whole thing was to showcase what people do creatively with LEGOs,” said CMA’s creative producer Jeff Sims. “We wanted to show work inspired by people’s love of LEGO.”

The show debuts new work by photographer Dean West and LEGO sculpture pioneer Nathan Sawaya. Sawaya crafted LEGO sculptures of items that West then used in scenes for his photographs. For example, LEGO flip-flops and a towel are in a portrait of a man by a pool. Both the sculptures and photographs are on view at “Think Outside the Brick.”

Impressive, also, was the presence of AFOLs in Columbus, Sims said. That stands for Adult Fans of LEGO. About 50 LEGO-loving grown-ups comprise the Central Ohio LEGO Train Club, which contributed a sprawling re-creation of downtown Columbus for CMA’s show. COLTC meets about six times a year to show off things they’ve built and discuss the latest LEGO series and new building techniques.

“I like that there are unlimited possibilities,” said Paul Janssen, COLTC co-founder and associate professor of physiology and cell biology at Ohio State. “You can build something highly technical or some completely abstract art, all with the same bricks.”

Janssen’s project: a million-plus-piece LEGO Ohio Stadium he built in his basement. It took him years of buying and trading bricks to get all the scarlet and grey he needed (he’d buy kits with a lot of grey and trade the other colored items for red bricks) and more than 1,000 hours to complete.

A white whale the stadium was not.

“Every time I would solve a structural problem,” Janssen said, “was a very satisfying feeling.”

Other local artists in the CMA exhibit were people Sims discovered still loved LEGO. Chris Tennant and Adam Brouillette, for example, used LEGO to inspire new paintings.

“I was really excited to be part of the show,” Brouillette said. “It’s like two of my favorite things combined. Actually, three if you count the astronaut in my painting.”

Another local artist, Bryan Kossmann, made ceramic sculptures of LEGO pieces. Moss on the artwork references the way LEGO remains through the passage of time — both pop culturally or personally. Kossmann and his roommates plan on buying themselves LEGO kits for Christmas and spending the day building them while watching movies and imbibing whisky.

“I’ve been a kid my whole life,” laughed Kossmann.

Despite the excitement of many artists for LEGO, Sims said he also heard stories from artists whose work had been dismissed by fine art institutions because they had been inspired by a toy.

“But I think that a lot of those barriers are being dismantled, which is a great thing,” Sims said. “I think [LEGO art] is appealing to those who appreciate humor and skill.”

And those nostalgic for the good ol’ days. Or that coveted pirate mini-fig.