Like a ghostly warning from the past, the 8-foot-tall dodo bird towers above every visitor to the White River Gardens.
The famed bird has been extinct for more than 300 years. Only two of its skeletons even exist anymore; most accounts of the bird stem from drawings and tales passed down by explorers.
Artist Sean Kenney wanted the work to be a reminder. As he painstakingly assembled more than 71,000 LEGO bricks to create it, his mind was on the delicacy of nature.
“I was in Mauritius, the country where they lived, and I was taken by how quickly man could eradicate an entire species of animal without even realizing they were doing it,” he said.
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The dodo is the most imposing, but not the most eye-opening, sculpture in the new attraction now showing at the Indianapolis Zoo. Kenney has created 12 works of art using nothing but steel supports, glue and more than 800,000 blocks for “Nature Connects: Art with LEGO Bricks.”
The exhibition celebrates the interlocking aspects of the natural world, as well as connecting with people’s nostalgia and enjoyment of playing with LEGOs, Kenney said.
“Just like LEGOs fit together, everything in nature is interconnected too,” he said. “It serves as a great opportunity to educate kids and everyone about endangerment and the inter-connectivity of man and nature.”
“Nature Connects” focuses on animal and insect species endangered in varying ways. The exhibition helps spotlight the importance of animal conservation and how people in central Indiana can contribute to it, said Carla Knapp, spokesperson for the zoo.
Looking to do so in a fun, engaging way, it was natural for zoo officials to connect with Kenney.
The Brooklyn, New York-based artist has been creating professional artistic sculptures using LEGOs for more than 12 years. A cartoonist and graphic designer, he had been fascinated with the toys since he was a small child.
“I’ve always been a big LEGO fan. That was my life,” he said. “Growing up, I never really let go of it as a hobby. I was the grown adult sitting there with a suit on, playing and building things.”
Throughout his career, Kenney has used the blocks to create portraits, make home decor and build commissioned artwork for collectors around the world.
He runs the world’s largest online LEGO enthusiast community. Despite his love for the iconic building block, Kenney has never worked for LEGO. He is an independent fan.
“There are a lot of normal, grown people who still love building and creating with LEGOs,” he said. “It’s fun, and it’s hard to make something that people don’t appreciate. Most people have a story or a connection to it.”
This will be the fifth of Kenney’s “Nature Connects” shows. He has been bringing his artwork to zoos and botanical gardens throughout the world since 2012. Each show features different sculptures created specifically for that location.
“Everyone we work with has a lot of feedback and thoughts on the matter. I’m not a conservationist, I don’t work at a botanical garden. So I rely a lot on input from a lot of other people to say here’s a creature that’s interesting,” he said.
For Indianapolis, zoo officials wanted a strong message of conservation. All 12 sculptures are connected to an animal conservationist who has been awarded with the Indianapolis Prize, given by the zoo each year to honor conservation efforts.
This year’s winner was Carl Jones, whose story is attached to the sculpture of the dodo. Jones is the chief scientist at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in London, England, and scientific director of the Mauritian Wildlife Federation.
Working on the small African island nation of Mauritius for nearly 40 years, Jones has brought back nine species of birds from the brink of extinction. One, the Mauritius kestrel, was down to four birds left in existence.
His efforts have buoyed the population to more than 400 currently.
“They would have gone the way of the dodo if it hadn’t been for the work of Dr. Jones,” Knapp said. “That’s a cool conservation story to tell.”
The sculptures are hidden throughout the zoo’s White River Gardens, surrounded by custom plantings designed by horticulturists to reflect the species’ native habitats, Knapp said.
“It’s nice to be able to wander through and discover each of these,” she said. “The gardens are spread out, so it’s all about discovery.
Each sculpture also is identified by a placard from Kenney, giving details about the design of the piece as well as symbolic features embedded in each.
The most stunning of which is his “Disappearing Rhino” sculpture. From straight on, Kenney created a hulking, imposing black rhinoceros with its head down and horns pointed at you.
But as you draw nearer to the piece and see it from the side, the rhino seems to disintegrate and fade away.
“We think about a rhino about one of those classic African mammals — with the lions, the cheetahs, the giraffes,” Kenney said. “But they are literally disappearing in front of our faces, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that.”
Despite the serious message behind the pieces, Kenney balanced his sculptures with the innate fun his work entails.
In his New York studio, Kenney and his team spend thousands of hours creating each piece.
The sculptures are steel reinforced, so the pieces can be bolted to the ground and don’t come apart. As each block is added to the sculpture, it is glued in place.
A protective lacquer allows the monuments to be outdoors without damage.
“I start with an idea, with pencil sketches and thoughts of what this sculpture will be about,” Kenney said. “When you build a skyscraper, you don’t just show up with a load of bricks and start working. It’s like that.”
For the sculpture of a polar bear and her three cubs, Kenney wanted to capture the bond between mother and children that the animals have exhibited.
The piece features the three small bears climbing on their mother’s back, clutching her leg and cuddling her side.
“We were doing research, and I saw how almost human-like the love between the mother and the cubs seemed,” he said. “That’s what we had to have.”
Even the smallest work in the Indianapolis exhibition contains more than 30,000 LEGOs, Kenney said.
Working with medium that is essentially thousands of tiny plastic bricks, each feature requires tweaking and experimentation on how different pieces can make the sculpture different.
“We read so much into a facial expression. If an eyebrow moves a hair, that’s enough to change a mood,” Kenney said. “That’s the fun part of it, the creative process. There’s no magic to it, just a lot of old-fashioned elbow grease.”
“Nature Connects: Art with LEGO Bricks”
When: Through Sept. 5
Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
Where: White River Gardens at the Indianapolis Zoo, 1200 W. Washington St.
Cost: Entrance to the exhibit is included in admission to the zoo, which ranges from $15.45 to $22.95 for adults and $11.70 to $17.45 for children, depending on the day.
12: Number of sculptures in “Nature Connects”
6,413.5: Hours to create the sculptures in the exhibition.
789,429: Blocks used to create the sculptures.
133,263: Blocks used to create the polar bear mother and cubs sculpture, the largest in the exhibition.
31,565: Blocks used to create the hummingbird sculpture, the smallest in the exhibition.