LUG Life

Second grader Abbie Bhalla considers the millions of possibilities. She’s participating in Bricks 4 Kidz, a local group that will attend the upcoming BrickLife event.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

The Dark Ages: That’s what the Lego community calls the years between playing with the colorful blocks as a kid and rediscovering this classic construction toy as an adult. At the BrickLife event in Henderson County this month, a great many children will enhance the scope of their play — while their parents may exit their own dark ages and find out just how exalted Lego has become. (Sticklers insist that the brand name is never plural.)

The toy is now a bonafide artistic medium, and its expert adult practitioners will be working on large-scale two- and three-dimensional art. Installations include giant Rube Goldberg-esque ball contraptions — on which small balls are catapulted, shifted, and rolled through intricate courses — and cityscapes where skyscrapers stretch taller than people. Some sets will be for sale, but organizer Nate Moak emphasizes that all exhibits will be covered by the cost of admission.

Photo by Clark Hodgin

Along with his three business partners, Moak has implemented similar events in larger cities, but he’s excited to bring BrickLife to a smaller region like the Asheville/Hendersonville area. He speaks with excitement about the days leading up to a show, when exhibitors fill vans, trailers, and trucks with their creations. 

He thinks of kids like his own nephew, who see the futuristic displays and get more excited about Lego life than about video games. Referring to the glut of popular themed box sets (Lego MineCraft worlds, Lego Star Wars scenes, Lego action figures of every kind), Moak notes, “Some people think they can only do what the instruction booklet tells them to do. When they see these creations, it opens up a whole new world of what is actually possible.” 

Lego user groups (LUGs) will be there, too, and they also want folks in their world. LUGs exist across the country, including the active western branch of NCLUG. They meet for conversation, competition, and to piece together intricate works. Ocey Newsome began the local group by posting flyers around town. For him, it’s about community and interaction as much as it’s about Lego. He says Lego is as valid a medium “as paint, or pencil, or pastels” — better, in fact. “Unlike those media, Lego is infinitely reusable.” At BrickLife, the local LUG will have displays large and small to “provide motivation for young builders and to show the public what kind of neat things can be made out of Lego. No sets, no instructions,” says Newsome.

Cityscape by Eric Badis of Charlotte, NC.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

Another Lego local, Wendy Land, will set up, too. Land runs the Arden-based branch of a national franchise, Bricks 4 Kidz, that operates in K-5 classrooms in 26 regional schools and summer camps. She’s clear that while her classes teach engineering, they aren’t stodgy: “[We] provide a really good atmosphere for kids to work together to follow instructions to get the job done.” The engineering lesson is an organic part of the fun. 

Land got into Lego when her son was small and obsessed with the interlocking bricks. It just seemed to make sense — to marry her career in education with the love of Lego that filled her house. She says one of the best parts of her job now is the satisfaction kids feel when they complete a project. Sometimes, she says, they shout out with joy when a motorized piece is first turned on. At the show, kids can work together to build large-scale spin-art machines.

E.J. Bocan III, a professional Lego artist, will also be attending. “The great thing about coming to a Lego show is being able to talk to [other] people who build things,” he says. “Maybe they’re interested in my artwork, or in people who build spaceships and cities.” He and his wife have carved out a business centered around Bocan’s art, plus custom sets of Lego and their own minifigures. Bocan stepped out of his Dark Ages in college and has been in business for 10 years, attending more than 29 shows last year.  

Stephanie Frady, a teacher at Glenn C. Marlow Elementary in Mills River, dispenses bricks to her student through the Bricks 4 Kidz program.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

His pieces are often large-scale mosaics ranging from impressionistic whimsy to photorealistic portrayals of pop-culture personalities. Like any architect, he uses a CAD program to shape his designs. Then he orders the right pieces and plans his build. Only then does he begin snapping bricks together. 

Whether he’s building a portrait of Freddie Mercury, a giant gecko, or an interpretation of Starry Night, Bocan keeps challenging himself. He angles the pieces, uses unexpected sizes, makes the work rise from its background. And that’s what he loves to see happening at these events.

“Sometimes there will be people who come to a show and don’t know what to expect, but there are so many cool things here. It’s exciting to see people discover something new. And it’s exciting for me to inspire people and encourage them to be creative, too.”

BrickLife Asheville happens in two sessions per day — 9am-1pm and 2-6pm — on Saturday, April 6 and Sunday, April 7 at the WNC Agricultural Center’s Davis Arena (1301 Fanning Bridge Road, Fletcher). $20 per person (ages 3 and under are free). For more information, see bricklifeshow.com. For more information about the local Bricks 4 Kidz program in schools and summer camps, see bricks4kidz.com. 

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