- Associated Press - Saturday, October 4, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) ± In 1961, the first plastic Legos appeared on toy store shelves in America, and they have bedeviled vacuum cleaners and enchanted children ever since.

Over the past half-century, the little multicolored interlocking bricklets have attracted the attention of grown-ups, both those who find themselves drawn to playing with them and professionals who have explored ways to use them in their work, like designers, architects and artists.

The Anchorage Museum on Friday opened “Brick by Brick,” a celebration of Legos employed in art, industry and amusement. It runs through Jan. 11.

“Brick by Brick” is not a traveling show; it has been organized by the museum. Museum director Julie Decker — who admits to playing with her son’s Legos — said the genesis of the exhibit came about when she heard that architects working on the new Alaska State Museum in Juneau were using Legos to develop a model of the proposed building, now under construction.

“It triggered the idea that Legos have become a good tool for designers and scientists,” Decker said. “They’re used to do everything from plan(ning) buildings to test(ing) out artificial organs.”

The fact that notable artists were using the toys also caught her attention. “I had noticed that, as we look at new materials, Lego has become something so ubiquitous, so ready to go, that it’s become an artistic medium,” she said.

“Part of the idea for the exhibit is that sometimes materials or products become so much a part of our popular culture that people start to look for new uses for them. Artists are good at that,” she noted. Cameras, for instance, evolved from documentary tools to a genre of fine art; hardware and secondhand shops supplied the goods for the school of found art and assemblages.

Nathan Sawaya is one of the artists who has made an international reputation with his work in Legos: portraits of famous people, landmarks (Mt. Rushmore), animals, food, cityscapes and life-size humanoids. “Brick by Brick” will include his one-man show “The Art of the Brick” as an “exhibit within an exhibit,” Decker said.

“Nathan is one of the official Lego artists,” she said. The company has contracts with such people that allow for special licensing, supplies and support.

Another notable Legoist featured in the Anchorage show is Mike Stimpson, who bills himself as a “toy photographer.” A lot of his concoctions use Star Wars characters in unexpected poses — a Stormtrooper opening a stack of valentines, for instance. But he may be best known for recreating famous photographs using the bricks and the accessory parts, heads and limbs. The memorable shot of a sailor kissing a girl in Times Square at the end of World War II and the lone protester standing in front of a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square come to mind.

“When you first look at Mike’s photos, it seems lighthearted,” Decker said. “But when you look again, you see more. He’s brought back those historic photos for a whole new audience. People are going back to find out what he was reproducing.”

As befits a homegrown show, a number of the pieces in “Brick by Brick” are by Alaskans, chosen by a juried selection process. These will be shown on a rotating basis, two weeks at a time, during the run of the exhibit.

Rio Shemet of Homer will have a scale model of the Titanic; the 12-year-old spent seven months on the project. Ty Keltner of Juneau — six-time award winner in Seattle’s massive BrickCon Lego Convention — will have several “builds” in the show; a press release describes one of them as “a whimsical sea turtle with a village on its back.”

More true-to-life are the many pieces contributed by Jeff Jones of Anchorage, who has contributed scale models of Alaska stuff like the museum, Alaska Railroad trains and the ConocoPhillips Building. Jones is an employee of ConocoPhillips, the corporate sponsor of “Brick by Brick.”

“Jeff is prolific,” Decker said. “He’s assembled almost every kit of Legos and does a lot of his own.”

He’s not alone. According to Decker, Alaska ranks high in the number of Lego clubs in the state.

That’s one of the curious factoids that emerge as part of the show. Others of interest:

- “Lego” is formed from the Danish “leg godt,” meaning “play well.

- The company was started by a carpenter in 1932 and recently became the largest toy manufacturer in the world.

- There are 915 million ways to combine six Lego bricks.

- There are enough of the bricks for every person on Earth to have 80.

Decker estimated that about 100,000 of those bricks are in the museum exhibit. That number includes the art and displays and the piles in a “free play area” where people can work on their own constructions, she said. “Because who wants to look at a big exhibit of things made with Legos and not go out and make something of their own?”

Legos have become popular educational tools, she said. “They’re used to teach math, science, technology, patterning, art. Building is important to creativity.”

In fact, Legos may be considered the ultimate in construction toys, a genre that goes back to the plain old wooden building blocks of yore. At the time the product arrived in America, there were numerous other companies making building sets, including Lincoln Logs (invented by the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, Decker said), Tinker Toys, Erector Sets and American Plastic Bricks, one of several manufacturers of interlocking plastic toy bricks that were primarily used to make model houses and miniature forts.

None could match the success of Legos. Perhaps the very plainness of the brick presents an open field of opportunity on which the imagination can romp like a puppy in an off-leash dog park. And not just the imaginations of children.

“They’re very appealing to grown-ups,” Decker said. Five percent of all sales are reported to be for adults. And the mature buyer is looking for more than toys or primary preschool colors.

“You go into a Lego store, like the big one in New York City. You’ll see masses, throngs of kids buying kits. But they also have walls of crazy alternative colors. It’s artistically very striking.”

She acknowledged a bit of irony in the fact that the museum’s celebration of the plastic bricks follows recent shows focused on the environmental danger posed by reckless disposal of trash plastics.

“We do have plans for recycling,” she said. “But the good thing about Legos is that they don’t ever get discarded. They get passed on.”

Well, maybe. But the random brick tangled in your vacuum cleaner or jamming into your bare foot as you step into a dark room may be a prime candidate for getting hurled into the garbage or out the window.

There’s another option. Among the several activities planned as part of “Brick by Brick,” the museum will sponsor a “mini-swap” on Dec. 30. The public will be invited to get those stray Lego parts out of the house and bring them to the museum to exchange with other fans.

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Information from: Alaska Dispatch News, http://www.adn.com

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