When he disappears, he disappears behind the walnut door to his room—the door, it seems, must always be closed to seal him in his private capsule—and then there’s the sound of banging and rummaging in the closet, the padding of feet, and the sudden jangly spill of Lego bricks. And that’s it. We won’t see him for two, three, four hours. He doesn’t eat, he doesn’t drink.
We’ll crack the door to make sure he’s alive, and there in that slim line of light we can see the crown of his head bowed in concentration. His hands read the pieces off the floor like Braille, without his eyes having to see, and a flying machine suddenly materializes, or the minifigures amass for battle or celebration. Often he is making it up as he goes, talking to this world in low, sweet tones. Until the enemy arrives, or the monsters.
Then his voice gets growly and a war ensues with the shattering of brick, one of the dangerous costs of believing in the permanence of your own self-made utopia. He is teaching himself a great deal about this world of ours, things we can’t teach him ourselves. So—we retreat. He builds more. Dinner now, we call five times. And again.
When he emerges, he’s spent but smiling, half-here. He pushes a pea around his plate, eats nothing. When it’s over, and he’s cleared his dishes, he pads quickly back upstairs, the door bumps shut, another jangle of sound, the colored bricks, and he’s gone again.
So let this be a story about trying to find my son, and a whole lot of other kids, young and old, wherever they go, behind the walnut door. And let it begin in a storage closet in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, New York, with a massive yellow duck. It’s a mini monster, this duck, almost exactly like Ernie’s rubber ducky from Sesame Street, but made out of nearly 25,000 Lego bricks—and the size of a Shetland pony.
When I first saw it, when I came face to face with its peaceable expression of innocent no-thought and its adorable citrine bill, I couldn’t help myself: I blurted out a laugh. More like an inadvertent snort, then laughter. Who would ever think to make such a thing? The answer was Sean Kenney, a youthful 38-year-old maker with reddish hair and blue eyes.
In fact, up until the duck moment, I’d been having a somewhat serious conversation with Kenney about his lifelong obsession with Lego bricks and, more specifically, about how, in his work as a Lego artist and entrepreneur, his medium—these bricks—seemed so primitive and regressive, well … so childlike.
But underneath, of course, I was also wondering: Why? Why was this nearly middle-aged man still playing—or getting to play—with Lego bricks?
“A LOT OF US MAKERS ARE JUST TRYING TO DO SOMETHING THAT’S NEVER BEEN SEEN BEFORE.”
Kenney didn’t disagree with the bricks being childlike. He wouldn’t even call himself an artist, as he feels he’s still playing after thirty-something years. When asked at what age he first began messing around with Lego bricks, there was no hesitation.
His earliest memory of life itself was at 2 in a New Jersey suburb, surrounded by a loving family (his dad a rabid DIYer), on the floor with them: the rainbow colors, the feel, the satisfying interlocking click. He was like a bionic person half made of Lego bricks. Or his psyche was. On his website he calls himself a professional kid. What was that? And where might the rest of us sign up?