Though I've been a LEGO fan since I was a kid, I didn't really realize just how widespread a community was encompassed by the little plastic bricks until I ran across an unbelievable cityscape that the Texas LEGO User Group (LUG) had on display at the 2011 Comicpalooza. Longer than Jaws and consisting of six figures worth of bricks, it was an awe-inspiring testament to the enduring legacy of the product. Even then, I wasn't really impressed until Imagine Rigney busted out a build representing Rapture from BioShock. Now, he's building Cthulhu.
If that's not enough to get you interested then nothing is, so I relished to chance for a backstage pass to the Brick Fiesta convention here in Houston. TLUG member TJ Avery was kind enough to introduce me around to the huge room full of imaginative creations and let me tour through the fine things users had brought.
Avery, like most folks, began building with bricks as a child, and as he acquired more and more pieces from various sets, he set out to start constructing things that never made it into the instruction books. For a hundred feet in either direction, entire cities were laid out with intricate detail. Avery told us that the collaborative city builds are the most popular creations, with train sets not far behind.
One such city was a dead-on representation of downtown Tampa, brought by trailer by the Greater Florida LUG. Robin Werner showed off bits of the masterpiece, including a light-up version of the Sun Trust building. The real-life structure has LED light displays used to commemorate things like special events, and the LEGO build follows suit.
You could get lost for hours staring at the model. All throughout its streets are hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny details that each tell their own little story. You'll be glancing over the city, focusing on the mammoth, man-high buildings, when all of a sudden you're stopped dead by the hot dog cart, the SmartCar, the foliage on the trees, tiny birds, signs, whatever any random figure might be doing.
It's like the first time you play a giant sandbox video game, and you realize that there is a whole culture that doesn't involve you at all and exists whether you interact with it or not. It comes to life, especially when it's down with such precision as the GFLUG build.
"Call up Tampa on Google Earth," said Werner, "and this is more or less what it looks like."
Also on display was a series of amazing train setups done by Tony Sava. Among them was a picture-perfect re-creation of the Palestine, Texas, train station. Having spent summers in nearby Oakwood building game fence for an uncle, I can attest to the accuracy. His locomotives are picture-perfect re-creations of actual engines, but when it comes to the cargo, he has a more whimsical side.
His trains haul ant farms, giant LEGO bricks, a model of the state of Texas, really whatever fun thing he decides to put into them. His bridges perfectly portray his personality. The structure itself is a marvel of engineering. He invited a group that had gathered to rest their weight on it, and to my surprise it held when I all but karate-chopped the thing. Below this masterpiece of building, though, in a LEGO lake, R2D2 and C-3PO fished with rifles. Skill and humor, mixed finely.
"The difference between LEGO trains and model trains," said Sava, "is that you can start easily and cheaply with the LEGO. You build a small train, and then you either add to it or you take it apart to build a bigger one. There's a flexibility and an imagination there."
Not just traditional builds were on display, but full-sized sculptures that can't help but be compared to other art done in marble or clay. Evan Bacon dominated the scene here, bringing with him three life-sized structures including Batman and Iron Man, with light-up chest repulsor. The statues are glued together, and when not hauling them around to conventions, Bacon lends them to parties and other events.
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He also sells them, and the price should give you a good indication of whether or not such constructions count as modern art. His Iron Man carries a $5,000 price tag, and is made of $1,000 worth of bricks.
Even Bacon's work was dwarfed by the Nightmare Before Christmas-inspired mural by Mark Bancroft. The exquisitely detailed work stood at least ten feet high, and was as accurate a reproduction of Jack, Sally and the rest as you'd see in any artist's sketchbook. Even better, the closer you get to the work the more it breaks up into its tiny, individual pieces, as if it were some kind of 3D pointillism.
Brick Fiesta is perhaps the purest expression of creative passion you could ever run across. Seeing what so many people have come up with, everything from cathedrals to the Moon of Endor from Star Wars, is an example of the endless imagination and fun capable of being produced by mankind.
Open to the public for viewing 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday, July 7, and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, July 8, at the Westin Galleria. For information, visit www.brickfiesta.com.