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Things to do: Visit LEGO sculptures while learning about nature at the Houston Botanical Garden

By on September 23, 2022 0

Brick heads, get ready. A can’t-miss LEGO exhibit is set to arrive at the Houston Botanical Garden starting Saturday and running through February 19, 2023. Nature Connects by Sean Kenney Made with LEGO bricks is an award-winning exhibition that uses nature-inspired artwork made from everyone’s favorite childhood assembly toy to explore the balance of ecosystems and humanity’s relationship with nature.

Produced by Imagine Expositions, nature connects depicts important subjects that New York-based artist Sean Kenney holds dear, from protecting animal habitats to planting a garden, to using a bicycle instead of a car.

“LEGOs are such an accessible medium. We have issues with the environment, but LEGOs make it less austere. We are all part of nature, whether we want to admit how urbanized we are or not. We occupy land, we are part of the food chain, and we nourish plants every time we exhale. We are intrinsically connected to nature, and I thought this art would be a fun way to talk about that,” Kenney said.

It’s part and parcel of the mission of the Houston Botanic Garden, an organization that celebrates its two-year anniversary this weekend.

“The reason we partner with Imagine Exhibitions on nature connects it’s because these LEGO sculptures are nature-focused, and so everything in the exhibit are pieces that tell the story of the importance of biodiversity and ecosystems,” said Claudia Gee Vassar, President of the Houston Botanical Garden. “You learn a bit more about these different plants and creatures. There are also orchids, lilies, butterflies and other exhibits. Placing them in our Susan Garver Family Discovery Garden will help people discover our plant exhibits, fall in love with all the different types of plants, learn how they can plant in their own gardens for pollinators and care for our planet by creating healthy ecosystems through the power of biodiversity.

Click to enlarge

Hey, squirrel friend!

Photo by Sean Kenney

nature connects is a fun way to bring people to the Houston Botanical Garden, which opened during a pandemic and, thanks to its mostly outdoor setting, remains one of the safest — and most educational — ways to spend time free time.

Also, LEGOs.

LEGO displays come in a variety of animals and plants in different scenarios. This shows the variety of things that can be made from these very versatile and very tiny building blocks.

“LEGO is a medium like any other. It’s like painting. It’s like a pencil. You can do anything with it. When I first started creating art with LEGO bricks, I was really surprised by their popularity… how many people came to them because of their love for LEGO but stayed with them because they loved what I was doing. Some might ask why am I using LEGO? I ask why not? It’s fun,” Kenney said.

He mentioned that each piece of the 15-part installation requires painstaking effort to create.

“It depends on the size of the sculpture, of course. All the sculptures we have at the garden have used around half a million LEGO pieces,” he said. “All of the sculptures currently in the garden took around 2,000 to 2,500 hours to put together, which is about a year of full-time work.”

In order to find each of them, it’s a trial and error method that uses both hands and a computer. And that also involves a lot of structural sound glue.

“I have to glue all the pieces together as I go. I can’t just build the sculpture and then say, “Oh, that face looks terrible.” Let me take it apart. It is not like that. So I have to build it or design it and physically or digitally take it apart and put it back together again and again until I have it the way I like it. Then, once that happens, I have a prototype that I can then make a copy of with my glue as I go,” says Kenney.

His glue game is also there.

“I use industrial solvents. This is the kind of stuff you would have on the pipes in your house. It’s similar to the way people make aquariums so that the aquariums don’t open up at the seams and the water goes down,” he detailed.

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Notice the endless bins of legos in the background? This is how the magic works.

Photo by Sean Kenney

Since LEGO sculptures have such a unique shape – and are glued into a solid form – they require special shipping which is, in a word, demanding.

“They end up going into custom-made traveling exhibition cases, which I had made by an art case maker in New York. Each of them is a large wooden box with foam inserts inside and large beams that hold the thing in place, so it can be carried around. The body and the sculpture together probably weigh half a ton. You have to get forklifts and usually one or two big tractor-trailers to move everything across the country,” he said.

When those monstrously large crates arrive and the sculptures are finally put in place, there’s another element Kenney had to plan for: that great star our planet orbits.

“Plastic and the sun don’t mix. If you’ve ever seen a misplaced water bottle, it turns yellow and brittle. I therefore lacquer each statue with a UV protected coat. This is not unlike the type of treatments applied to the exterior of a car, as cars also contain many plastic components. I worked with a Connecticut-based specialist who is the only person in the world I trust to do it right,” Kenney said.

Hairspray isn’t just for the sun. There are also insects that need to be swept away from the statues. Kenney says it all works together though.

“I’m always dealing with the weather, the wind, the rain, the cobwebs and all that. If it was just in an art gallery, I wouldn’t have to deal with this. But it’s not the same because a big part of the fun of the exhibit is that you can walk around the beauty of the botanical garden and experience nature,” he said. “My art is all about nature. It’s that kind of nice synergy that you wouldn’t get if you were just clasping your hands behind your back in a gallery somewhere.

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Tiny tiny LEGO bricks fit together to create this piece of beauty.

Photo by Sean Kenney

While working with so many LEGO blocks, it’s natural to wonder if he’s ever walked one.

“I’m very committed to occupational health and safety regulations, so we all wear shoes here in the studio,” he replied.

Kinney thinks everyone has something to gain by visiting the sculptures and the Houston Botanical Garden.

“There are many things we can educate people about in nature. I think because LEGO is such a draw, it makes it an easy entry point,” he said.

Explore Sean Kenney’s Nature Connects Made with LEGO Bricks, open daily to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Houston Botanic Garden, One Botanic Lane. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 713-715-9675, ext. 100 or visit hbg.org. $8-$15.