Like every kid, I grew up loving to play. While Barbies, Mechano and dress-ups all featured, nothing was quite as magic as playing with LEGO.
Second, only to Sylvanian Families, LEGO was probably my favourite toy (after Sylvanian Families). There was something magic about playing with my collections of LEGO, and when I was old enough I asked for the specialised girl kit, the now discontinued Belleville which was a bit like Beverly Hills 90210 without the sex and for little girls who liked dolphins. I remember spending hours making up dramatic storylines about my characters for some reason, creating scandals and giving each of my three-inch characters unique personalities. Such was the obsession with LEGO, my very nice family even took me and my brother to Legoland Windsor when we were kids in the United Kingdom (I still have a Dorling Kingsley book on LEGO at home).
So last year, as an adult, I was so excited to find out the new Te Papa exhibition ‘Brickman: Wonders of the World’. I knew I was going to the exhibition, but even more excitingly I got to have a sneak peek behind the scenes at the show before it opened. This incredible world-class exhibition showcases the wonders of the world in LEGO, as determined by its creator and certified LEGO Master Builder Ryan McNaught. This was a rare chance to see not only the final creations, many of which were already done, but see how an exhibition of LEGO is put together.
Ryan and his team spent a jaw-dropping 5,000 hours building the 50 LEGO masterpieces on display including the Taj Mahal, Michelangelo’s Statue of David, Great Wall of China, Empire State Building (complete with King Kong), Leaning Tower of Pisa, and Arc de Triomphe. When I arrived, there were cherry pickers going, large crates everywhere and some somewhat stressed out Te Papa staff.
Since then when I visited in December, ’Brickman: Wonders of the World’ has had over 50,000 people visit, an incredible achievement in such a short time frame. A perfect holiday activity for the family, the show is open now at Te Papa up until 11 February 2018.
But what about the creator behind the bricks? How do you end up creating and touring exhibitions of LEGO around Australasia? And how does LEGO even know you exist? I remember thinking that the people who made LEGO as professionals (as showcased in my book) must have the best job in the world. And you know what? I was right. It is - and I heard it from the horse's mouth. With 6 full-time staff working for him, LEGO is now a full-time business for Ryan. However, it didn’t start out like that. I sat down to chat with Ryan to find out what keeps the magic of LEGO alive for him.
How did he get into making LEGO creations as a job?
Ryan McNaught told me that he used to be the former chief technology officer of a large media company. In 2007, he started tinkering with LEGO for fun. “I used to be in board meetings, working a full day - and then I’d come home and do 8 - 10 hours of LEGO” Ryan explained.
After starting to post his work online, mainly for himself and his love of creating objects from LEGO, he began to be noticed by LEGO. “I shared it all online. I didn’t approach them they came to me. It kind of just happened by accident and I was very lucky.” Incredibly, Ryan was asked to do some work for LEGO part-time.
Ryan had been building for a while when LEGO told him about LEGO certified builder status. At the time, Ryan explained to me, there were only 9 in the world - so it was a huge honour for LEGO to ask him to join them and be one. LEGO certified builders all specialise in different things. For example, one Certified Master Builder builds flora and fauna and another teaches math with LEGO. “To me, its always about real-world objects. I call it learning by stealth. My kids never knew about the seven wonders of the world until seeing my LEGO buildings for example.”
I ask whether it was hard to leave his old role and the security that entailed for him. "With my job, LEGO and kids in the mix, something had to give,” Ryan says pragmatically. “I decided that I’d take the opportunity. “Now, I’m full-time LEGO and I run marathons as a hobby. What fool wouldn’t do it?”
How does he create all the huge statues, vehicles, pictures and landscapes from LEGO? Does he work on his own?
“I have 6 staff who work for me” Ryan explains, waving around the room. “Like that guy on the cherry picker over there. I do have to do a bit of boss related stuff, of course. Sometimes I build for 3 weeks, and other times I have a week of paperwork!” he says.
Is the Te Papa exhibition ‘Brickman: Wonders of the World’ the only exhibition he’s created right now?
“No, there are three exhibitions of ‘Brickman: Wonders of the World at the moment based on my work” Ryan explains. “We premiered this exhibition last year in December. It’s been in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Perth! Te Papa approached us because they liked the show and so we decided to bring it to New Zealand” he explains, excitedly.
What is his favourite part of having exhibitions of his LEGO work?
Ryan thinks. “I love seeing the reaction of kids on opening day at the exhibition. Kids have no filter” he laughs.
Why is LEGO timeless?
I ask Ryan why we’re still so obsessed with LEGO, even as adults. “Whatever kids are into, LEGO adapts because you can build anything” Ryan explains. “If a kid is into space one day, and dinosaurs the next, it can change. It also has this thing called ‘Pride of Creation’ which means kids want to show what they’ve done to their parents. It’s powerful in growing their self-esteem and that stays with us all for life.”