In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell posits that 10,000 hours of practice is the tipping point between good and flat-out greatness. For Kenney, the stopwatch started ticking when he was 2 years old. Even during free time at his last “real” job, he’d sketch the handsome Park Avenue limestone buildings visible from his high-rise, corner cubicle windows, then go home and build them with LEGOs.
“I learned everything I know by building,” Kenney says. “Practice makes perfect. It’s corny, but true. Every time you build, you find a better way to do things.”
For larger projects, Kenney uses a surprisingly low-tech approach: He first obtains pictures of a subject, shown from several different angles. Then he makes drawings on graph paper. If the subject is about 3 feet large or smaller, Kenney builds it twice — tweaking the first version as needed to create the second, final version.
Industrial-strength glue holds the sculptures together. To one who imagines the pieces intricately bound only by dint of sheer engineering derring-do, that’s a buzzkill — kind of like learning that duct tape holds the space shuttle together. But the glue is a necessity, Kenney notes.
For larger projects, where building inside a studio is impractical, Kenney constructs a small version to “figure out the physics.” To fix misplaced pieces, he uses pliers or even a razor blade. “LEGOs are soft enough to cut,” he notes. Who knew?
“Creating curves out of squares is hard,” Kenney says. “But the Holy Grail of any art medium is creating the human face — it’s the hardest thing to do. When you do it right, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.”
Kenney is a personal hero for every schlub who’s grinding out a living while humming “Take This Job and Shove It” under his breath. His old career was good while it lasted but, ultimately, it was about as satisfying as light beer when compared to playing every day in his own personal LEGOLAND.
“In my head, I was thinking it was nuts to leave a six-figure job,” he says. “But I just wanted to go home and play with LEGOs. And it turned out to be the right decision.
“Every kid dreams they’re going to do what they want to do for a living,” he adds. “For me, it was just a natural progression of things … I just followed my gut. As an adult, I still played with LEGOs for fun after work, and then someone paid me to do a project. Then a few people paid me. Now I do it for a living.”
With nary a hamster wheel in sight.
Ken Wysocky is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer. After three years, he’s still trying to complete his son’s 3,803-piece LEGO Death Star kit.