• Image about Sean Kenney
feeding TIME: This hummingbird is just one part of Kenney’s larger nature exhibit made of LEGOs.
Reiman Gardens/Iowa State University
Daily Playdate at Work
To say that Kenney plays with LEGOs is like noting the Higgs boson is (or was) hard to find. When Kenney busts out the LEGOs, it’s usually go-big-or-go-home territory. Take his “Nature Connects” show, for example, a traveling exhibition of 27 LEGO sculptures on display at botanical gardens nationwide through 2015.

The larger-than-life figures create a Honey,? I Shrunk the Kids environment where visitors gape at everything from a 5-foot-wide tiger swallowtail (37,481 LEGO pieces) to a 7-foot-long bison (45,143 pieces). The pièce de résistance? A ruby-throated hummingbird that hovers almost 8 feet in the air as it feeds from giant flowers (31,565 pieces). The project box score: about a half-million LEGO pieces and some 5,000 man-hours — the equivalent of one person working full time for nearly two and a half years.

Or consider Kenney’s biggest sculpture: a 400-pound, life-size polar bear built for the Philadelphia Zoo. It took Kenney and five staffers 95,000 LEGO pieces and 1,100 hours to build it. “And 60 gallons of coffee,” he adds.

The bulk-buying privilege comes in awfully handy. Freight trucks routinely deliver wooden pallets holding 300 to 500 pounds of LEGO-filled cartons to Kenney’s 800-square-foot Queens studio-cum-Romper? Room. Kenney stores the pieces, sorted by color and shape, in drawers and plastic bins. Another room is dedicated to inventory overflow. At last count, Kenney owned enough LEGOs to put Imelda Marcos’ shoe fetish to shame — about two million pieces in all.

Back in the brutal days of BLCP (Before LEGO Certified Pro), Kenney was forced to raid toy stores — and frantically mail-order kits like a kid wielding Mom’s credit card — to obtain certain blocks in bulk. “Once, I needed 10,000 clear pieces to make a corporate logo. About that time, LEGO and I started talking,” he says wryly.

Which begs the question: What does it take to become a LEGO pro? The way Kenney vaguely describes it, the process for ?deciding who’s a LEGO Obi-Wan Kenobi is a bit like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s attempt to summarize obscenity: It’s hard to define, but you definitely know it when you see it.

“I can’t speak for the LEGO Group, but I view the program as a guild — a group of guys who’ve all mastered the same craft,” explains Kenney, who helped LEGO develop the pro program. “They’re looking for people who are physically engaging their product — doing something interesting with them in a commercial way.” The LEGO website defines certified LEGO pros as adult hobbyists who’ve “turned their passion for building and creating with LEGO bricks into a full-time or part-time profession.” Candidates are judged by three criteria: their building proficiency, enthusiasm for LEGOs and “professional approach towards other LEGO fans and the broader public” — all of which fit Kenney as snugly as two interlocking LEGO bricks.