We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
For Judy Miller and the other members of WAMALUG, plastic makes perfect—if they can find the right parts.
Like most artists, Judy Miller draws inspiration from a variety of everyday sources. When she visited the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the summer of 2000, for example, she became intrigued by a Jewish dancer and her accompanying musicians, who were performing dances traditional to the ancient city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
So Miller set out to create a pair of sculptures: a woman dancing and a man playing a doira—a kind of hand drum that has been used to make Bukharan music for centuries.
The challenge of adorning the pair in brightly colored traditional garments appealed to Miller. So did capturing the bearing of the dancer. “She had a very onstage performance style,” recalls Miller. “[Her] hand gestures, the pose, and her facial expression.”
When I visit Miller’s Takoma Park, Md., home in mid-November, the sculpture of the doira player stands a few feet tall in a back room. A red-blue-and-green diamond pattern extends over the sleeve of his jacket, and there are other crisply rendered touches, too: His fingers curl around the edge of his drum, and the dangling end of his belt swings from his waist.
The dancer, on the other hand, doesn’t look so hot: She once stood with her arms aloft and two braids of black hair reaching down nearly to her feet, but now her dress is about all that remains.
Miller is simply destroying the woman. It’s not that she’s unhappy with her: The dancer’s hand gestures worked out pretty well, she says, and so did the pattern on the figure’s dress. Nor does she want to start over: The artist says she’s “pleased with how the effect came off with [such a] complicated shape.” It’s just that Miller, a 35-year-old assistant professor of mathematics at Georgetown University, works in a readily and intentionally recyclable medium: LEGO.
These days, the most prominent example of LEGO as an artistic medium may well be the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” video. In keeping with the band’s rough-hewn garage-rock sound, the animated LEGO scenes in the video are blocky and seemingly half-formed.
But Miller and the other 25 members of the 3-year-old Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area LEGO Users Group (WAMALUG) use LEGO to create sculptures that go far beyond the clumsy, bumpy forms most people associate with the medium, making everything from train cars to cathedrals to castles to a tropical fish from a waiting-room tank at the National Institutes of Health.
Of course, a medium whose basic unit is the stud-topped square isn’t always ideal for lending nuance or detail to a creation. An aphorism posted on WAMALUG’s Web site summarizes the freedoms and frustrations of working with injection-molded bricks: “Oh LEGO, grant me the imagination to dream of something to build, the collection to have the parts I need, and the wisdom to know the pieces to use.”
Just as it did for countless other children, LEGO provided a bright plastic haven when I was growing up—a world of construction, space exploration, and cheery smiley-faced figures. Adult interests and responsibilities compelled me to shelve my bricks years ago. But as I circulate among the WAMALUGians at a recent monthly meeting, held in a windowless, marker-boarded room on George Mason University’s Arlington campus, I learn that in WAMALUG vernacular, I’m still in my “dark age.”
All the members of WAMALUG have emerged from—or simply never entered—that period. They’re also, in accordance with club rules, all over the age of 17. And each of them pays $5 a month to be here, so no one really plays at these gatherings.
Instead, they talk about projects they’re working on, check out what LEGO is doing with new kits, and hone their creations for BrickFest, a yearly convention featuring design workshops and competitions that draws participants from across the globe. A steady hum of activity stretches over the six-hour meeting, with 11 WAMALUG members and their six guests coming and going at different times.
Seated at a table, 23-year-old Silver Spring resident Jeff Stembel is assembling Kit No. 4730: The Chamber of Secrets, based on the new Harry Potter movie. Stembel says he’s not a huge Potter nut: He’s seen the films but hasn’t read any of the books. And despite the effort he’s putting into arranging the 591 pieces according to the set’s instruction manual, he says he’ll dismantle it soon: “Tonight, actually.”
Later he’ll strip-mine it for pieces to use in his own projects. It never hurts to have more of the basic pieces (including several in a new shade of green), and there are also some offbeat items in this and the other Potter sets Stembel has built: the multipart, dagger-toothed serpent that lurks in the chamber; curved fencing from Dumbledore’s study; the unique hairpiece that perches on Gilderoy Lockhart’s head.
Fellow WAMALUG member Abe Friedman estimates that he’s spent between $5,000 and $10,000 on LEGO sets over the past three years or so. “Part of me doesn’t want to check my records,” the 40-something jokes, noting that he’s acquired 65 copies of Set No. 7106, the escape pod used by R2-D2 and C-3PO in the first Star Wars film.
Usually Friedman doesn’t go to that extreme, but he needed multiples of the pod’s curved hull pieces to form the corners of a five-story building he was creating. By removing the machinery image on the piece’s side, he was able to complete his project—but he also ventured into what is, among WAMALUG members, an ethical gray area: brick modification.
Friedman justifies his action on the grounds that other LEGO kits include the same piece without the escape-pod exterior; he simply made an official LEGO piece by his own means. Stembel cops to having created a LEGO wakizashi sword by chopping a LEGO katana sword in half. “I prefer not to modify, as much as possible,” he says, “but sometimes it has to be done.”
Stembel always keeps an eye out for pieces for a project he’s worked on intermittently for the past two years: an enormous LEGO castle. The great hall, whose massive table can accommodate about 80 LEGO knights and whose chessboard floor contains more than 600 black and white tiles, measures about 18 by 30 inches.
As Stembel sets up the Chamber of Secrets, he runs through the nomenclature of the meat-and-potato pieces: “bricks,” “plates,” “slopes,” “tiles,” “arches,” and “cones.” Specialized pieces don’t always have a formal name; holding up what looks like a piece of red flame, Stembel says, “You just gotta call it flame.”
Some WAMALUG terminology evolves in reaction to changes LEGO has made in its basic bricks since their introduction in the ’50s. Walls on initial early-’80s LEGO castle sets had to be built brick by yellow brick. But in some later castles, each wall was formed by a few prefab gray pieces that had rock details printed on the exterior. At WAMALUG, these are known by a pejorative acronym: “BURPs” (Big Ugly Rock Pieces); they’re the older siblings of “LURPs” (Little Ugly Rock Pieces). There are also “POOPs”: Pieces [that can be built] of Other Pieces.
But perhaps the most meaningful term for WAMALUGians is “MOC”: My Own Creation. A MOC is an original work—such as Stembel’s castle or Miller’s dancer—that a LEGOsmith builds on his or her own, not by following the instructions of a prepackaged LEGO kit.
Shortly after Stembel completes the Potter set, an approximately 3-foot-tall MOC comes through the door. It’s an almost completely gray model of a Gothic cathedral, carried in by its creator, 33-year-old Steve DeCraemer. A guest at the meeting, DeCraemer recently moved to the D.C. area from Las Vegas. When he sets his work down on the front table, a crowd gathers around to admire the graceful, studless, apparently seamless exterior. Inside, pews rest on patterned floors, all made of smooth LEGO tiles.
He’s brought just the front entryway and a short stretch of the nave—the remnants of what was once a cathedral about 6 feet long. He’s already taken apart the rest, using some pieces to start his next creation: a 21-story art-deco building. DeCraemer says he spent four or five years on the castle, even visiting cathedrals in Belgium, France, and England for inspiration. Having worked by trial and error, he’s not certain how many times he’s rebuilt it; he guesses at maybe four or five.
“It’s never-ending,” he says, “and that’s half the fun of it.”
Miller estimates that she has 10,000 LEGO pieces—a “minuscule” hoard next to some WAMALUG collections. Stembel, for instance, says that he has between a quarter of a million and 300,000 bricks at home. Still, Miller notes, other sculptural media need “quite a bit of infrastructure” by comparison. In the part of Miller’s living room that functions as her studio, a series of red plastic containers, where her LEGO collection is sorted by type of piece, is the sum total of her art-making equipment.
She’s showing me a work in progress, something she hopes to have ready for the 2003 BrickFest next July. Compared to DeCraemer’s cathedral—or even to Miller’s other work—it’s pretty modest: a cluster of just 27 bricks that form a camel.
Or, rather, it’s a camel plucked out of an Atari 2600 game. It’s almost entirely white, and though it’s recognizable as a camel, it’s all boxes and sharp edges, with no real detail.
“I don’t do a lot of sketches,” Miller explains. “What I do is make a lot of practice, little models.”
The blocky ruminant is an embryonic version of what will eventually form a scene from the life of Rebecca. When the biblical heroine first encounters Isaac, her future husband and Abraham’s son, she’s traveling through the Negev on a camel.
Though Miller’s subjects have been as varied as Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral and a scene from the Talmudic story of Hillel, she says that Rebecca reflects her abiding interest in intriguing and intelligent women. She describes Rebecca as “a real organizer,” a foil to the “very retiring” Isaac.
By the time the camel is done, the simple model will have been rebuilt to twice its size, then rebuilt again at twice that size. “[You] increase the number of bricks by a factor of four to eight each time you do that,” says Miller.
Then she’ll bump it up again, not quite doubling the size and rendering the model in just a few colors. Finally, Miller will rebuild it again—at the same size, but with colorfully patterned clothes for the matriarch. The finished sculpture will stand about 2 feet tall.
It will take about 160 hours to complete the process, Miller estimates, but she’s looking forward to it. “[The] verse says she pulls up her veil when she spots Isaac,” she says. “She’s a smart character, so it should be a good expression.”
Faces can pose a real challenge in a medium that lacks the flexibility of wax or clay, however. A quirky MOC depicting a scene of ’50s domestic bliss—a spatula-wielding woman smiling ecstatically over her kitchen’s atomic-powered stove—was particularly difficult for Miller. The mouth came off well, but the woman’s chin, formed by a pair of yellow arch-shaped pieces, looks a little blocky—a little, Miller suggests, Charlie McCarthy-esque.
Though Miller wishes the chin were a little rounder, she’s not too worried about it: The best thing about working in LEGO is that she can take everything apart and solve that problem next time—or maybe the time after that. “At that scale,” she says, “with the parts I had available, that’s about the best that can be done.” CP