Sean Kenney's larger-than-life Lego sculptures on view at Zoo Atlanta
Constructing a Lego castle or spaceship is a fun activity for children, but sculptor Sean Kenney turned his childhood hobby into a full-time career. The award-winning artist has created Lego masterpieces for the last 15 years.
His current exhibition, “Nature Pop!” at Zoo Atlanta, includes 40 larger-than-life sculptures of plants and animals.
Kenney joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about his lifelong love of Lego building.
Interview highlights follow below.
The art and science of playing with blocks:
“Every sculpture that I create starts out as an idea or as a drawing first. If I’m gonna create a sculpture of, say, a polar bear, honestly, the first thing I think about is, well, I don’t know enough about polar bears. Let me go online and look at pictures. Let me look at videos and watch how they behave together and start to get ideas about what it is I might want this sculpture to be doing,” explained Kenney. “Is it a mom and a baby? Is it something hunting?”
He went on, “Then I begin the process of actually trying to figure out how to make it with tens of thousands of Lego pieces. The first thing I do is I usually will model it on the computer in 3D, so I can get an idea of how big it’s gonna be, how heavy it might be, or how unwieldy it might be to move around. And then, once I have that, I begin to actually create a digital schematic, almost like an architectural blueprint of what I want that sculpture to look like with Lego pieces… I have found now that there’s software available, kind of like Minecraft, that game where kids can build with little cubes.”
Achieving emotive power and natural gestures with Lego:
“One of the most challenging aspects of using little plastic squares to create soft, organic features is exactly that. I’ve been building and playing with Lego for so long that I have in my mind, I can almost see things as Lego bricks.” Kenney said. “Of course, we all know about the squares and the rectangles, and those are the easiest way to create curved, large forms. But when I get to, say, a face or a hand, where I want to have more detail, I can start to use some of the funny pieces, you know, things that are slopes and circles and radar dishes and shaped like coffee cups and wheels and windows and whatever else, all the little pieces that you might find in a Lego set at the toy store. I have those at my disposal, and I don’t have anything else other than what the children have.”
On using Lego sculpture to process a tragedy:
“When the tragic shooting happened in Uvalde, I didn’t know how to react. I was at a loss for words. I still don’t even know if I can explain now,” Kenney recalled. “We all felt just a pit in our stomach, and as an artist, when I don’t have words for something, I make things to express how I’m feeling when I can’t express it any other way. And I just immediately started drawing on my screen, digitally drawing portraiture of these children, and I just did it as an active catharsis. I think I needed to get it out of my system.”
He went on, “I just wanted to show the spark of joy, the glint in their eye and the love in their smile because it’s so easy when we get caught up in the national conversation about this stuff to focus on numbers, or the shooters, or on the laws, or Congress. And I just wanted to show these beautiful children and who they were up until this happened. And the portraits themselves are also missing pieces intentionally; there are large sections that are left out because these children never got to finish building their own lives.”
Sean Kenney’s Lego sculptures are on view through Aug. 8 in the “Nature Pop!” exhibition at Zoo Atlanta. More information can be found at https://zooatlanta.org/event/nature-pop/.