The saying “do what you love” is something we have all heard at some point in our lives. For Sean Kenney, in many ways, it has defined his career. Sean is the artist behind the Arboretum’s newest exhibit Nature Connects®, Art with LEGO® Bricks, an outdoor exhibit composed of 14 larger-than-life sculptures made entirely out of LEGO bricks. Working with such an uncommon medium, Sean has gained recognition for the realistic qualities within his work. His attention to detail is as magnificent as the massive monarch butterfly LEGO sculpture feeding on its milkweed. From a perched bald eagle to a giant praying mantis, the nature-inspired pieces Sean created for Nature Connects look as if they might come alive at any moment.
Though Sean is based in New York City, the Arboretum had the opportunity to ask Sean a few questions about his craft, career and Nature Connects exhibit.
1.) Did you always want to be an artist?
I’ve been building and playing with LEGO toys my whole life. I was a total “LEGO maniac” when I was a kid, and LEGO toys were usually the only toys I ever asked for when my birthday would come around each year. I kept building LEGO models all through childhood and even into my teenage and adult years. My models slowly became more involved and elaborate as I got older, and eventually I started building LEGO models professionally. Now it’s my full-time career.
2.) What do you like most about your job?
Before I became a LEGO professional, I worked as a cartoonist, a graphic artist and a web site designer. I spent 10 years designing web site 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. I was sitting at my desk but I wasn’t working; I was daydreaming about beautiful architecture, bright LEGO colors and thinking about what I would build with LEGO bricks when I got home. It was about then that I realized that was exactly what I needed to do: 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. I never looked back.
3.) Would you say you have a particular artistic style? If yes, has this style changed over the years?
My sculptures are not computer-generated. When I’m designing a model, I gather as many photographs or drawings of the subject as I can, and then use graph paper or a computer model to plan out the basic shape and size. After that, I start building a prototype with LEGO pieces, using my 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 is coming together…often taking sections apart and re-building them. Once I have a prototype that I like, I’ll rebuild it glued, using the prototype as a template.
4.) How do you plan your work when creating LEGO brick sculptures?
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 it was 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 four weeks designing and planning this specific piece. I researched images of hummingbirds in nature, choosing the perfect colors and designing the internal steel reinforcements, and then took about five+ weeks building it.
Depending on the size of the sculpture, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. And if the model is something that needs to be uniquely recognized, I spend a lot more time making sure it’s perfect.
5.) Looking through your portfolio, you’ve built everything from city blocks to portraits. What inspired you to create Nature Connects?
Fundamentally the show is about connections. Much as LEGO pieces connect, everything in nature is connected in an intricate balance. It is important to me 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. Others showcase the beauty of nature, like a giant 7 foot tall rose or a 5 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.
6.) Do you have a favorite piece in the exhibit?
The Monarch Feeding on Milkweed is the most visually intricate model I’ve ever made. I spent over 160 hours just figuring out how to design the milkweed flower, which has tons of nooks and crannies and weird shapes and things. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the milkweed is two shades of pink and LEGO does not make pink in very many different sized pieces. Usually at this scale you need a lot of larger pieces – 2×4 and 2×8 bricks, for example – to keep things rigid and interlocked. But, the darker pink only comes in tiny sizes like 1×1, 1×2 and 1×3. So, the whole sculpture is basically a solid mass of tightly interwoven smaller bricks. I’ve never purchased so many pink pieces in my life.
I love working on large projects! They’re the most fun of all, because they require a lot of creative planning, a lot of building and they always end up creating a big “wow,” both by parents and kids. Building giant LEGO sculptures is very different than building small models. Large sculptures usually need to be braced with internal steel armatures or mounted to wood or metal bases. And everything I create is glued so they can withstand their own weight, as well as the rigors of shipping and public display.
Nature Connects, Art with LEGO Bricks is on display throughout the Arboretum’s gardens from July 30 through October 23, 2016. A special LEGO brick-building day is scheduled in conjunction with the Arboretum’s annual Monarch Butterfly Day on September 17. For more information, please click here.