Tuesday, April 20, 2010

LEGO Certified Professional Sean Kenney takes a walk on the wild side -- Part Two

And we now return for the exciting conclusion of our two-part interview with LEGO Certfied Professional Sean Kenney. When we last left our intrepid blog writer, he was in the middle (THE MIDDLE!) of a Q&A with Kenney on his wondrous new exhibit -- Creatures of Habitat: A Gazillion-Piece Animal Adventure -- at the Philadelphia Zoo that is raising awareness of endangered animals through LEGO sculptures.

Was there anything that surprised you, once you began building the models?

I created three rainforest dioramas... They were scale models that showed, first, a healthy rainforest, then the bad guys cutting down the trees, and finally the good guys replanting the rainforest. As with all my models, I had to first plan them out and figure out what kinds of parts I'd need and how much of each. For the healthy rainforest, I figured "Okay, I'm going to need about 25 trees to fill this area. So I made varying-sized and -shaped trees to fill the space. When they were in place I stepped back and said, "I need 50 more!" It really gave me an appreciation for how dense, lush, and populated the rainforests really are. I kept adding more trees, more animals, more underbrush, more rocks, more more more... eventually I had to stop, because even though it was looking more and more true-to-life, it was becoming so dense that you couldn't actually see into the diorama to appreciate the wildlife!

Building the rainforest dioramas also made me realize what's going on in those arts of the world and why, specifically. We've all heard the campaigns, "save the rainforest" all our lives and, we all say "yes, sure, it's terrible" but we shrug it off because it's so removed and distant and abstract. But actually seeing these little scale models specifically shows you what's going on and seeing it with your own eyes makes it clear and obvious. And better yet, the info-graphics at the installations explain to kids what they can do in their day-to-day lives to make a difference... easy things like choosing certain brands of shampoo or pencils over another.

While art is one part of the animal pieces, there's also a focus on raising awareness about endangered animals. Do you think LEGO bricks are a good medium for
achieving that goal?

Actually, I do. At first blush, it might seem unusual to use fake animals to promote the welfare of live ones ("didn't we come to the zoo to see REAL animals?"). But it's eerily poignant, because if people don't commit to helping save these creatures' habitats, there may not be any left to ever see in person. And soon. One bird we created, for example, doesn't even exist in the wild anymore; it only exists in zoos.

Plus, kids have fun at zoos .. animals are cool, but learning about them is usually a drag. These exhibits are like playtime! Kids will come up thinking, "wow, what's this all about?" and before long they're learning the stories about conservation.

I think that LEGO bricks are a particularly green toy. Have you ever known anyone to throw one out? How many toys will stay relevant to a child from the age of 5 to the age of 12? Most kids are sick of a toy after 6 months and it ends up in a landfill, but you'll be giving your childhood LEGO collection to your grandkids.

Got a favorite animal among what you built?
I really like the installation we did of the Golden Lion Tamarins. They are very tiny monkeys that are only about a foot long. We set them up in a real animal habitat, so as you're walking along looking at reptiles and Macaws, you stumble onto this habitat with 12 bright orange monkeys built with LEGO bricks. They seem almost frozen in time... climbing on branches, grooming each other, perched atop rock faces, and trolling through tall grass. It's a lot of fun because of all that, but monkeys in particular are so expressive, and so looking at their facial expressions is great too... one monkey is holding a stick up in front of his face, examining it curiously with one eyebrow raised.

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