Lego artistry is awesome

Real life Master Builder creates amazing scenes from traditional toy

In the world of Paul Hetherington’s fantastical imagination, everything is awesome.

There are skeletons riding midnight carousels, a lost world of Atlantis where SpongeBob competes with Captain Jack Sparrow for top billing, and a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. In Gotham City, the Joker duels with Batman, while Lady Gaga performs on an elaborate stage, surrounded by adoring “little monsters.”

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And every intricate scene is built entirely of Lego.

Hetherington, 44, is a real life Master Builder — or Lego artist, as he prefers to refer to himself.

Each intricate creation can take between 20,000 and 30,000 pieces to create and two months to build.

Hetherington rarely sketches designs before he builds. “I’m kind of a three-dimensional thinker,” he says.

He’s built most of his creations for Lego conventions — held annually in both Seattle and Portland or for special events like the Lego exhibit at Science World.

He created one of his largest and most intricate creations, Poseidon, for a mythology exhibit at the Surrey Museum. It features a massive four-and-a-half foot tall figure of the seated Greek god of the sea. But Poseidon also opens to reveal an undersea world of shark guards that sway to the tune of Yellow Submarine and mermaids that swim around the scenery, powered by special Lego gears and motors.

In another of Hetherington’s pieces, Joker’s Funhouse, diabolical fun includes man-eating plants directed by Poison Ivy to attack and victims suspended above roiling vats of poison.

Hetherington’s pieces incorporate elements of fantasy, humour, and painstaking research into the worlds he’s creating.

“Once I start a project I have to finish,” he said. “I have an incredibly hard time starting, but once I’m in it, I’m in it to the end.”

Most recently, he’s been working on a new scene featuring Batman and the Joker duking it out while suspended in mid-air outside a theatre in Gotham City. Hetherington will be taking that to Bricks Cascade, a Lego conference in Portland next weekend.

Not surprisingly, Hetherington has a lot of Lego — he estimates his collection at probably between one and two million pieces. An entire room in his North Vancouver apartment is dedicated to his craft, with floor to ceiling plastic drawers containing different pieces — one drawer might have mini figures, another a particular size of brick or wheel.

A big red plastic bag of Lego bricks sits on the floor.

“When I first started I used to go to garage sales,” said Hetherington. “I got quite a lot of my collection that way.”

In more recent years, the opening of the Vancouver Lego store substantially added to the ease with which aspiring Lego artists could obtain their raw materials.

The “pick a brick wall” is “the bulk food store equivalent of Lego,” said Hetherington, who estimates he spends about $5,000 a year on Lego.

For rarer pieces — like Mr. Gold — dedicated Lego fans and artists turn to an online site through which fans sell rarer pieces.

Rare pieces tend to be parts that “maybe only came in one set,” said Hetherington. “Some Lego parts can be worth $10 to $30 a piece. Maybe they weren’t produced very long or had a short production run.”

Lego mini figures tend to be among the most collected pieces. Star Wars figures are especially popular.

The supply is constantly evolving as Lego discontinues some pieces and creates new ones.

And some have to be adapted — such as the vinyl and tape Hetherington used to create Lady Gaga’s outfit for her Built This Way stage show.

“She has a gun bra,” he said. “Lego doesn’t make a gun bra.”

As a Lego artist, Hetherington considers himself more of a purist than not. He doesn’t glue his creations when he’s finished them, for instance.

“Part of the challenge I enjoy is working within the Lego system.”

While some of his more incredible creations are packed away in storage, there are times Hetherington will dismantle them. “Lego’s always making new elements,” he said. “Maybe something you built 10 years ago might start to look dated.”

One of his most recent pieces is a coffee-table sized model of a modern city townhouse complex — complete with a Starbucks on the corner and mini-figures going about their lives in the Lego apartments inside.

“This was an attempt to embrace the squareness of the brick,” he said.

Last year, Hetherington was also one of the Vancouver Lego Club’s “technical advisers” to West Vancouver artist Douglas Coupland for the “Growing Up Utopian” segment of his show at the Vancouver Art Gallery which featured 100 identical Lego houses based on an original kit from 1969.

A child of the ’70s, Hetherington grew up playing with Lego. Back then, “Lego looked a lot different,” he said — produced in primary colours with very few specialty pieces.

“In a way it was easier to understand it back then,” he said.

Like many kids, he gave up Lego in his pre-teen years. But unlike most, he gravitated back to it later as an adult.

In the past 20 years, the Internet has made it much easier for adults interested in Lego to easily connect with others with a similar interest.

Lego clubs formed for adult fans —including one in Vancouver, which Hetherington belongs to. Between 40 and 50 members meet once a month to talk about new products and upcoming shows.

As both a traditional toy and artistic medium, Lego has staying power. The first brick came out in 1949.

The Lego company, based in Denmark, was the first to modify the brick, putting tubes on the bottom so the bricks would stick together and mass producing them in plastic.

The beauty of Lego is its amazing versatility, said Hetherington. “If you want it to be a car it can be a car. If you want it to be a building, you can have a building.”

After a dip in popularity about a decade ago — when Hetherington said the company strayed from its core values — Lego is now back, bigger than ever, boosted by everything from online video games used to market mini figures to last year’s popular Lego Movie (featuring an Oscar-nominated musical score by the Canadian indie duo Tegan and Sara).

Hetherington said it’s easy to see why. “You don’t have to paint it. You don’t have to glue it. It’s easy to work with. It’s nostalgic”

“If you build something and you don’t like how it turns out, it’s very easy to rebuild it.”

Lego has “come full circle,” said Hetherington. “If Doug (Coupland) can convince the Vancouver Art Gallery they want Lego to fill up an entire room . . . now it’s considered art.”

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