Take one plastic Lego brick and click it into place on top of another. Then do it again and again and again.
Now imagine doing that 100,000 times, making complex, three-dimensional sculptures out of what most people consider nothing more than a child's toy — clicking together piece after piece to make a grandfather clock, a Star Wars figure, a replica of the Eifel Tower.
For the past decade, Lego sculpting has become its own art form, and about a dozen people in North America alone have created a living as freelance Lego artists.
“It's been an amazing cottage industry that has built up around Legos,” said Eric Harshbarger, an Auburn, Ala., resident. Harshbarger, who found himself with a little free time in 1999, decided to play around with his old Lego sets from childhood and see what he could make.
Legos were something he loved as a kid. And he was not the only one. Danish toy maker Lego Group of Billund — the name comes from a shortened version of the Danish words “leg godt” meaning “play well” — injection molded its first interlocking plastic bricks in 1958.
But Harshbarger opted to come up with his own Lego designs, rather than recreating original Lego diagrams. He took photos of his work and posted the results on a Web page. A few people saw his page and said they liked what he was doing. So he built more sculptures.
By the end of 1999, he had his first commission.
“I suddenly had to think about what I should charge for these things. I had to think about how many bricks I'd need, and what that would cost, what I should charge for my time,” he said.
That commission led to another. Then another. Within three years his sole income came from Lego sculptures. He made big pieces — a 7-foot-high grandfather clock. He made desktop models. He made mosaics.
His pieces sold for a few hundred dollars, for a small model, up to $10,000 for something major. Each sculpture only used Legos for structural support, though Harshbarger sometimes supplemented hollow pieces with glue to ensure the design would withstand shipping.
“Just imagine what my tax forms looked like, listing Lego bricks as a business expense,” Harshbarger said.
And they were a big expense. Thousands of small pieces make up each finished piece. And until recently, Lego sculptors did not have a purchasing outlet outside of normal retail stores, he said. So before beginning each sculpture, he headed to Wal-Mart or Target and loaded up on dozens of cases of Lego models.
“I'd have five shopping carts filled with Legos,” he said.
Once he bought them, Harshbarger still had to sort them by color. The rise in Lego sculpting — Harshbarger estimates 10-12 “serious” independent Lego sculptors make a living in the U.S. now — brought about supporting businesses selling bricks already sorted by color and size. One Kansas entrepreneur, he noted, has 2.5 million Lego bricks on hand at any given time.
Harshbarger is not doing as much Lego sculpting these days. After more than six years at it, he took a step back to recharge, but he still does special commissions.
“Eventually it started to wear me out,” he said, “but it was better than a lot of other jobs I could have had.”