I opened the car door in the parking lot of Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, and immediately regretted my decision. Why had I come to an outdoor spot in the middle of June, with temperatures soaring above 90 degrees? Nevertheless, I pushed through, and into the welcoming air-conditioned lobby. After getting tickets, I entered the Gardens, and was immediately greeted by the first display of the Garden’s current installation of Nature Connects®: Art with LEGO® Bricks – a giant praying mantis made out of over 42,000 LEGO pieces. If you have never seen a Nature Connects display, it’s truly awe-inspiring – even enough to take one’s mind off the summer heat! This, and the other sculptures in the series are currently touring the U.S. and Canada, and will be in Richmond’s Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens until September 22. The exhibit features 24 separate pieces in 13 displays throughout the property.
Most people alive today have owned – or at least heard of – LEGOs, since the LEGO group was founded in 1932. After undergoing some changes, the brick as it exists in its present form was launched in 1958. I must say, though, LEGO sets of today have come a long way. I watch my seven-year-old niece build and program a LEGO robot, and I am in awe of how far LEGO sets have come. My LEGO skills consist of the astounding ability to build a house – with completely rectangular form, a flat roof, and perhaps a wall in the middle… How someone has the skill and imagination to combine tens of thousands of plastic blocks to form a detailed and unique structure is beyond me!
One such structure is the incredible ruby-throated Hummingbird and Trumpet Flower – and I am still trying to figure this one out! You will know what I mean when you see it – the entire body of the hummingbird with outstretched wings is all supported by the delicate hummingbird’s beak, which is sipping nectar from a giant trumpet flower. It’s equally hard to comprehend how a hummingbird’s wings can flap 60 times per second! This 8-foot tall sculpture took artist Sean Kenney and his team over five weeks to design, and uses over 30,000 LEGO bricks. Speaking of Sean – he’s the award-winning artist and mastermind of the award-winning Nature Connects® exhibits. He is not a LEGO employee nor is he affiliated with the company in any way, but he sure gives them a good deal of business!
Monarch on Milkweed was one of my favorite displays – with over 60,000 LEGO pieces. Who doesn’t love a butterfly? (If you do, be sure to also check out Lewis Ginter’s Butterflies LIVE! exhibit.) Sean shows the beauty of the relationship between the monarch butterfly and the milkweed plant (the butterfly pollenates, the plant feeds) in this sculpture, which has an 8-foot wingspan, and intricate antennae. This is the second largest sculpture that Sean has created, and it took four months of work to design and build. He describes this as the most “intricate and complex structure” that he has created. Interestingly, this sculpture was complicated by the difficulty obtaining pink LEGO bricks. Who knew?
As I walked through the Gardens on a scavenger hunt to find each of the thirteen displays, I realized that despite the heat, there are plenty of shaded places throughout the property. It wasn’t nearly unbearable as I thought it would be, and the sprinklers sporadically watering lush garden beds were a treat to walk through. Cool off the kids in WaterPlay in the Children’s Garden through the end of September. Don’t forget a towel!
Although the presence of wildlife is common in the Gardens, have no fear – the Milk Snake (complete with a protruding red LEGO brick tongue) is not real! Nor is the LEGO mouse he is chasing… The two are comprised of over 12,000 bricks, and are two separate pieces. Click here to get a sneak peak of how Sean created the mouse’s eye! Birds vs. Squirrels is another LEGO structure on display, complete with a white picket fence, and a bird feeder filled with LEGO bird food.
The White Henri Lily was another favorite, which a brick count of 32,514 bricks. This particular structure was designed and built by Sean’s assistant Jung Ah over the course of two months. Again, this piece was designed around the limitation of pink LEGO pieces, which are available only in very small sizes and shapes. Because the available bricks are so small, they had to use a large number of them to create the center of the flower in a way that would hold together.
You can’t get more American than the Bald Eagle, and this gorgeous piece is made up of over 42,000 bricks. I was most fascinated by the realistic eye of this stately creature. Interestingly, the eye is made out of an upside down LEGO magnifying glass with a black circular piece behind it. Check out pictures of the piece in progress here.
And there are more – Duck and Ducklings, Gardener & Rototiller, Moth Orchid, Pileated Woodpecker, Sundial, and even the Fox Hunting Rabbit mural (pictured at top) that allows visitors to insert their faces into the artwork for a fun photo op!
Don’t take my word for it – you have to see these for yourself! If you aren’t brave enough to venture out in the heat of the day, check out Nature Connects on Thursdays, while Lewis Ginter is open until 9pm for Flowers After 5. In addition to this exhibit, enjoy live music, wine and beer, dining and shopping. Bring your lawn chairs and blankets, and on the second and fourth Thursdays in July and August, bring your leashed dogs for Fidos After 5, which benefits the Richmond SPCA.
Photography by Jean Haynes