Lego: Building a Medium
What is it about Lego bricks that we find so alluring? Is it their blindingly cheerful colors? Their reminders of childhood? Or maybe it's that they give even the most inept, unartistic among us the ability to build and create? This summer, Colorado's Longmont Museum & Cultural Center is capitalizing on the seemingly universal appeal of this toy chest staple with Build! The Amazing World of Lego, on view through September 8th. Featuring the work of over 20 Lego artists, the exhibit showcases the extraordinary way in which these individuals have appropriated the toy into a true creative medium. One of the featured artists is Imagine Rigney, who at the ripe old age of 17, has been building and showing seriously for five years. His complex, imaginative pieces run the gamut from mythical creatures to scenes evoking his favorite video games, from which he says he draws most of his inspiration. For the Build! exhibit, he also completed a piece of Lego architecture, working from images and blueprints to construct the Longmont Museum as it will look after a planned addition. We recently spoke with Rigney by phone about his influences, the creative process, and SNOT.
NEA: How did your passion for Lego develop?
IMAGINE RIGNEY: Like most kids' passion for Lego, it started with seeing a toy one day in a store and it looked cool. So I started building. I always had a very creative mind; I always did stuff with play-doh, I did stuff with normal blocks. Lego just added a whole new level to that creativity where you can build three-dimensional things going out in all different directions.
I first started using it more as an art form when I joined a LUG in Hawaii. A LUG is a Lego Users Group. Pretty much every state around the country has one and there are multiple LUGS in different countries. I was living in Hawaii at the time, so it was a small LUG, not many people, but I started doing little shows. I started bringing stuff I built to those, and it slowly escalated from there into a much bigger thing.
NEA: Do you ever use other materials in your pieces, or do you only use Lego components?
RIGNEY: Sometimes I'll use LED lights just to get the mood of the creation and sometimes little decals for areas that I can't tile or mosaic myself to get them to look like what they're supposed to be. But aside from that, I don't use anything non-Lego. And there's no glue either.
NEA: No glue? Then can you walk me through some of those techniques that you do use?
RIGNEY: There's the SNOT technique, which stands for “studs not on top.” You take certain types of Lego pieces that have bumps not only on the top of the brick but also on the side that allows you to build out and away from the creation. It helps to make creations look more lifelike or three-dimensional. You have some sculptural elements added to it, essentially. There are some other techniques where certain types of bricks turned to the side are the same length as a brick standing straight up where you can incorporate different angles that you might not normally be able to get just using standard components. Also using sloped pieces and all sorts of other pieces that help. And then there are also pieces called jumper plates that allow you to position a brick sort of off-center and allow you to get more depth to a piece sometimes. Those are the more advanced techniques, and a lot of the other ones are more just using the bricks in different ways they weren't intended, like using them with certain types of hinges again to give you different angles.
NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process from when you first get an idea to the final build?
RIGNEY: Usually I play a game or read a book and there's something in there that inspires me to build something directly based off of that, or similar to that. Many times [a project] is brought about by shows coming up, or somebody commissions me.
I think about [the project] for a couple of weeks and I sketch a few basic things out, just to give a general idea of shaping and where I want the elements of the creation to be. And then I just sit down and start building. No online programs. Some people use those, but I generally don't. I start messing with the pieces until I get the shapes and elements I wanted in the piece.
NEA: Do you have a favorite type of piece to build?
RIGNEY: I prefer doing scenes and creatures especially.
NEA: What's the attraction for you there?
RIGNEY: Even when I was really little, I wanted to build the big scary things you see in B-movie horror films or the old Godzilla films and stuff. I never had the bricks, and Lego never made the components necessary to do that. Now that I have been building for as long as I have, I have enough skill that I can start attempting to build some of the creatures that I've always wanted to do.
NEA: Have you ever had to disassemble a piece? I imagine that must be really heartbreaking.
RIGNEY: It depends on the piece. Sometimes if it was an especially tough and annoying build, if there were certain angles that were almost impossible to achieve, you end up loathing the piece, especially if you've brought it to several shows having to prepare it and take it down and prepare it and take it down again. So sometimes it is nice to just push it off the table onto the floor and watch it smash. But taking apart a piece just means you have more components to work on something else.
NEA: Do you know how many pieces of Lego you have?
RIGNEY: We're probably verging on a million pieces at this point.
NEA: Where do you store them?
RIGNEY: For a while, we sorted them by color, but my collection hit a point where you couldn't find anything even if it was sorted by color because there were just so many different brick types within the color. So then we switched over to sorting by brick type. I still have yet to finish that. There are five or six Rubbermaid tubs full of unsorted bricks in my basement.
NEA: What do you find to be the biggest challenge of working with Lego?
RIGNEY: Working within the limitations of the brick. One brick can only do so many different things, and you have to find the right pieces in order to accomplish an angle or a shape or a curve or a joint within the creature or architectural detail. Some people modify the components but I don't do that. They either cut the brick or glue it a certain way, or take two bricks and cut them and modify the angle slightly so they can achieve bends you couldn't normally do. But not many builders do that. Most builders are what we consider within the community as purists who only use the brick and its limitations.
NEA: What's the reaction you get when you tell people you're a Lego artist?
RIGNEY: Even a couple of years ago, the reaction would be, "Oh really? You build with Lego?" Or people wouldn't even know what Lego was. But within the past couple of years, it's completely changed. Everyone knows what Lego is, and if you build with it, people think that's really cool. It's grown incredibly within the past couple of years.
NEA: Do you see an overlap in your work between art and architecture and design?
RIGNEY: I've always liked architecture. I've always enjoyed some of the old Gothic designs and things like that. And as a little kid, for two years we lived near Washington, DC. There are so many great museums there. We spent everyday pretty much in the city going to all the museums. So that certainly influenced my building ability. I've seen all this great art and it certainly has influenced how I build and what I build.