The man who built New York, LEGO by LEGO
It was the late 1990s when the LEGO company obtained the rights to Star Wars. Jonathan Lopes was flipping through a copy of The New York Times when he saw an advertisement for the new X-Wing Fighter LEGO kit. He remembers making the trek from his Bronx home on the snowy Sunday to a Toys “R” Us in Yonkers to pick up the set, a move that reacclimated him with his favored childhood toy.
“I was like, ‘whoa, that’s kind of cool,” Lopes said of the X-Wing. “It’s LEGO — I liked LEGO as a kid, let me go and buy it and see what it’s like.”
Two decades later, Lopes is kicking off his first solo LEGO art exhibition at Downtown Brooklyn’s City Point. The show, comprised of about 30 New York structures like the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, City Hall and Grand Central Terminal, is accompanying the launch of his book, “New York City Brick by Brick.”
About half a million blocks went into the display, which in passing might look like a room filled with toy models — but up close, Lopes’s intricate attention to detail is shown in the flower pots hanging off brownstone windows and AC units cooling down a Brooklyn firehouse. Look closer, and the facades of old buildings appear weathered, an effect of different shades of gray blocks that LEGO has produced over the years.
“I don’t know that people ever really thought about it in this scale and in this level of detail,” the 49-year-old artist said. “A lot of people are just really stunned and blown away that this type of work can be done. I really strive for realism in my work.”
It wasn’t until LEGO started producing Star Wars and Harry Potter kits that they began releasing more earth-tone blocks, the shades Lopes needed to recreate the urban environment he saw every day.
His favorite piece, the gritty and rundown “Pool Hall,” hearkens back to the inspiration he tapped into from New York’s past.
“What I was doing then was building burnt-out buildings. I had studied New York City back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, when areas of the South Bronx, northern Manhattan and the Lower East Side looked like a bomb hit them,” he said. “So that was the aesthetic I was trying to achieve, within LEGO, which is a shiny, happy, bright-colored children’s toy.”
Lopes began transitioning the hobby into a paying gig after a friend pushed him to publicize his work. He rented a studio in Gowanus, forcing him to make commissions to pay the rent, in addition to his full-time work in book publishing.
“That really set the groundwork for where I am now. Now I travel the country, I do 15 shows with a LEGO convention called Brick Universe,” Lopes said.
The parts in all of his models are standard LEGO pieces, and he actively tries to avoid using new shapes, staying true to the ones he used as a kid when he and his brothers collected the bricks in cloth sacks.
Lopes grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts and lives in San Diego now, but he lived in New York for 26 years. It’s the city where he brainstormed his design for the Woolworth Building commuting on the subway, and where he got one of his first breaks when a local dry cleaner displayed his over 3-foot-tall replica of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower in their front window.
“I truly became myself in New York City … and really found my creative voice living here and being around the energy,” Lopes said. “It’s my heart and soul.”
The free exhibit takes place at the Prince Street Shops at City Point on May 11, 12, 17 and 18. Lopes will be signing books on opening day from 12 – 3 p.m.
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