One of the more surprising claims I’ve made to my fellow LEGO enthusiasts over the years is that for me LEGO building is a cheap pastime. This always seemed to fly in the face of AFOL convention. Everyday we are bombarded with images of fans’ bespoke building lairs, replete with hundreds of thousands of bricks. The forums cluttered with enthusiastic discussions about new sets and the addictive perils of Bricklink stores. Somehow amongst this consumer noise I have personally found myself spending very little on bricks, which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t have done so if the opportunity arose.
When I returned to LEGO building in my late 30s I was faced by, shall we say certain financial challenges: 2 small children and their associated nursery fees, as well as a new house with a big mortgage to pay. I couldn’t complain, life was good, and I was lucky enough to be able to support my family; but in the short term there was little left over for frivolous hobbies.
Around this time my wife gave me a bag of LEGO, rescued from my Mother’s attic as a nostalgic present one Christmas. A familiar story for our community quickly followed. What started as a bit of fun on Christmas Day turned into an obsession by the end of January! More surprising was the fact that it unlocked that childhood ability to create and play with whatever you have. The old 1980s LEGO company slogan, ‘a new toy everyday’, ringing more true than ever.
I revelled in the fact that I had enough bricks to build what I wanted, and of course what I made could always be dismantled allowing me to make something new. Combining this approach with the power of digital photography, I was satisfied with quickly amassing an archive of models. Whilst I started buying the odd specialist piece or small LEGO set, there was no desire to scale up and amass a huge collection. Besides my finances strictly prohibited this.
So for the first eight months of my new life in the LEGO community I satisfied myself with building space models and vehicles similar to those of my childhood. I still do, as my space dinosaur series proves. But inevitably I needed to expand my subject matter; a certain creative itch needed to be scratched. There had to be a way to carry over into LEGO the work I had developed as an art student, and informed my life working in a university drama department.
Initially I was stumped. To do what I wanted would require a massive increase in the amount of bricks I owned. I looked at the big brick artists like Sean Kenney and Nathan Sawaya, who combined a reverence to the form of brick building with artistic vision, and quickly realised that their scale of work was impossible for a brick-poor builder like me. How could I engage with the beauty of brick-built art with such a meagre collection.
The answer came as it so often does from working within strict limitations. I was determined to make a piece that paid homage to my series of drawings and painting of a phantom figure I had made several years before. Inspiration hit, a shadow only needed to be built in two dimensions, and this would allow me to build at a decent scale without heamorging elements. The result was my first artistic piece, Magic Cat, Lonely Boy, The Bird and Their Shadow, which captured something of the feel of my artwork. It also hinted at another way of celebrating the LEGO brick, rather than the simplicity of the 2×2 element it leaned heavily on the wonderful set of angles found in the slopped elements of the system.
The next move forward in this development of two-dimensional building came a few months later when I realised how much I could build with only a handful of bricks. The small piece Musicians that followed was an homage to my artistic heroes, Picasso, Klee and Chagall. A simple and unique aesthetic, different yet similar to my paintings, was emerging. An aesthetic that celebrated the LEGO building system and at the same time required very few elements to implement.
Work followed on two pieces in short succession that took this idea of building and applied it to popular culture. Luke and Vader, a recreation of the epic light saber duel from Return of the Jedi saw me work at developing a silhouette style that captured the archetypal images of popular culture. Batman at the Graveside polished the technique further, finding a way to capture more detail. As well as fun pieces like my two Wind-Up Robots, which spoke to many AFOL’s childhood.
A path was now set, where I could quickly and effectively build complex brick images from a handful of elements. A sequence of works followed in the theme of silhouettes that explored the potential for LEGO to illustrate classical myth and literature, from Ancient Greece, to Marlowe and Arthurian legend.
These works gained some traction in the LEGO community, ultimately ending up as a four page spread entitled ‘Shadow Play’ in Mike Doyle’s Beautiful LEGO: Dark book. The most successful of these pieces, a rendition of Plato’s parable of the chariot, featured as a winning build.
Later in this same year I took some of these creations to Brick 2014 in London. Despite my initial horror of having to display black silhouette pieces on black table cloths (quickly remedied with a white sheet), the show was a success. I also noticed myself at odds with my fellow contributors. When asked how many bricks did it take to make these, I repsonded with the unimpressive 200-300 pieces. How long did they take you, about an afternoon I answered. By the end of the show I had become evangelical about how much could be done with very little, and I was encouraging adults and children alike to consider building in two dimensions.
After the success of these silhouettes I found myself at another impasse. Without investing in many more black elements the series could not be pushed further. That life sized silhouette of a Victorian lady would have to wait. Also I was becoming dissatisfied with the erasure of the brick quality of the builds. As I was becoming more successful at building silhouettes, the fact that they were made of bricks was becoming less obvious.
An answer came from the use of negative space and my love of folk art traditions. I found that by punching holes in my work, a paper-cut, print or lace like quality could be achieved. Initially these models were worked out in black and white, in pieces like The Owl and the Pussycat, Chinese Soldier and Portrait of Frankenstein’s Monster.
However what quickly became apparent was that the development of these negative spaces allowed the return of colour to my work. By utilising a double-layered technique I was able to colour-in and add patterns to my work. I looked to Russian folk art as a way of exploring this new technique.
Five years in on this artistic journey, I still regularly turn to two-dimensional building as a way of creating what appear to be larger artistic builds from my still small LEGO collection. It seems to me to be a style more regularly used by a whole range of builders, and a welcome addition to the huge creative options that LEGO offers. But perhaps more than many other forms of building, its true creative potential is still be fully realised. As an experimental adventure, it is a way of building I can see myself pursuing for years to come. – whether it be through more folk art or returning to pop culture themes like Futurama.