New Exhibit Puts An Alaska Twist On A Familiar Building Block

Legos—the small, colorful plastic blocks—have grown into the most common place toy in the world, with more than 5.2 million manufactured every hour.

And they are not purely for toy-stores and playroom carpets anymore.

A new exhibit at the Anchorage Museum focuses on Lego fine arts, and how the building blocks fit in with Alaska’s own artistic traditions.

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A new exhibit at the Anchorage Museum captures the art of Alaska using Legos. Photo by Zach Hughes/KSKA.

“The impetus for the exhibition came from seeing that architects were using Legos to create scale models of buildings,” explains Julie Decker, director of the museum and curator for the Brick-by-Brick exhibit, which was in the works for more than two years.

“The impetus for the exhibition came from seeing that architects were using Legos to create scale models of buildings,” explains Julie Decker, director of the museum and curator for the Brick-by-Brick exhibit, which was in the works for more than two years. Photo by Zach Hughes/KSKA.

The multiroom show on the building’s third floor features installations by globe-trotting Lego impresario Nathan Sawaya, one of the very few “Lego master builders” recognized by the brand’s governing body.

Sawaya uses the rectangular blocks to make towering monochromatic humanoids and mesmerizing faux-fabric dresses the same way a sculptor manipulates marble or bronze.

There are also works by Mike Stimpson, a U.K. artist who recreates iconic photographs like the moon landing and V-J Day kiss from the cover of Newsweek–but using little yellow Lego figurines.

“These photographs have important stories to tell,” Decker says. “So while they seem playful I think they’re actually quite rich in content.”

The exhibit does away with distinctions between an artist and an amateur, though. A few feet from Sawaya’s self-portrait (rendered, of course, in Lego) is a hall designated for community submissions, which rotate every two weeks. These pieces run the gamut—from plans to show off works only by those age five-and-under, to a detailed replica of the museum itself by a ConcoPhillips contractor—and avid Lego collector—on display now.

And the commitment to breaking down barriers goes a step further: just one door away is a large, loud playroom filled with containers of building blocks, and half-a-dozen highly engaged patrons. Most of them supervised or in strollers.

“Museums are typically hands off, but we thought it was important with this one to be hands on,” Decker said, struggling to speak above crescendos of cries and crashes.

The playroom is hardly a gimicky diversion. Brick-by-Brick wants to erase lines between play and work, kid and grown-up, high art and utilitarian tool. Lego’s first premiered in Denmark in 1949, and fit politely under the umbrella of Scandanavian design trends, melding form and function all the way from eco-friendly urban planning to resplendent can-openers. Decker tied the exhibit to the museum’s ongoing efforts to shift its focus back to Alaska and communities of the far North.

“I think it’s safe to say we’re rethinking all of our gallery space,” she said standing near an abstract Lego rendering of birch-trees. “We know that no longer are there these distinct boundaries between disciplines—between art, science, and history. We know that our job is really to just talk about Alaska as part of the North, to talk about place and the environment. And I don’t think you can do that in boxes.”

The tendency to mix art with utility, Decker insists, has always been part of the Northern tradition. Whether it’s intricate ivory tools, baskets woven with grass and baleen, or perhaps someday a Lego-based dogsled.

Mixing art with utility is a northern tradition, museum curator Julie Decker says. Photo by Zach Hughes/KSKA.