By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
In a strange world of misfits, Harry Potter found company with Transformers, weird game characters, and dolls near an Ikea store.
These were part of a display at BrickCon at the Seattle Center on Oct. 2. BrickCon is an annual LEGO exhibit for fans. You would think that kids packed the room. Instead, I met another kind of kid—big kids in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and even 50s. There is a difference between an adult and child who engages in LEGO. To adults, LEGOs are much more than toys.
They call themselves builders. Their play often demonstrates complex challenges, immense creativity, and problem-solving skills. They have the money and resources to build an entire LEGO world at home with thousands of pieces, and one project can cost as much as $10,000. If the miniature is too big, the builder has to figure out the logistics to disassemble the artwork and re-assemble it quickly, so it can be moved to exhibition sites.
So passionate are these builders, they spend days, months, or even a year forming something from scratch to complete their vision, in addition to their day job. Talk about patience. Constructing LEGOs is actually growing one’s patience and endurance.
LEGOs relieve COVID stress
“Building with LEGOs has always been a great stress reliever prior to the pandemic but even more so now,” said LEGOs builder Tyler Tsuji. “Whether following instructions for a set, or free building a MOC (My Own Creation), I’ve found the process to be very relaxing.
“Since the pandemic started, I’ve spent more time organizing and building with my LEGO collection.” It’s easy to throw a movie on in the background and start sorting parts or start building a robot or something, said Tsujii.
“LEGO bricks have always gotten me through hard times,” said Mariann Asanuma, LEGOS author and builder.
“Sorting bricks is very therapeutic, as is building and designing for me.”
Asanuma said she joined a group called SORTLUG—a worldwide community of LEGO fans—and that group is coming up on its first anniversary. They meet regularly over Zoom. Asanuma said her friends from all over the world in the LEGO community helped her get through these past 18 months as she really felt isolated.
LEGOS and puppy
What these adult players had in common is, they all started to play LEGOs when they were kids.
If you give LEGOs and a puppy to a child, which one gets the attention?
RJ Coughlin began playing with LEGOs when his dad gave it to him, as well as a puppy for Christmas. “I was 3 or 4 years old. I had so much fun making cows, sheeps, and all kinds of animals (with the LEGOs). I completely forgot about the puppy.”
Of Filipino and Chinese descent, Coughlin’s job is related to his hobby. Could it be that he enjoyed LEGOs so much that he decided to work for a toy company? Coughlin proudly showed off his masterpieces. One of them is Renton’s Ikea store. Yes, an actual model of Ikea was built with 3,000 to 5,000 LEGO pieces. It took him more than six months to finish. The process included several trips to Ikea, not to shop, but to take photos and then figure out the details, sizing it accurately. Amazingly, it is.
Coughlin’s dream is to have his model displayed at the Ikea store. His exhibit was made of six different sections. And he can assemble it and move it around swiftly.
“LEGO is endless creativity, endless recycling,” said Coughlin, who has a 12’ by 14’ room at his home to store his LEGO collection. Would he allow his own kids to play with his LEGOs? Coughlin said he doesn’t have kids. But if he did, his kid wouldn’t be allowed to touch his LEGOs. “He needs to have his own, and I have mine,” he said.
Sorting systems and storing strategies by color and by piece was one of the workshops at BrickCon.
“There’s no right or wrong answer,” said Coughlin. “You make a system to fit you.”
Michael Kuroda of Bainbridge Island, a software engineer, also played with LEGOs in his pre-school days.
“I built [LEGOs] in high school. Then, in college, I took a robotics course. LEGOs are similar to robotics using nano,” he said, so it rekindled his interest in building LEGOs again. Soon, he found a local LEGO group and connected with them. LEGOs build not only his satisfaction, but friendships with all kinds of fans.
“I like to build a lot of stuff on existing things, transform the real world 3Ds into LEGO versions, and have people enjoy it.” When spectators recognize what they are by looking at it because they look so real, that’s my satisfaction,” said Kuroda. It’s an engineering challenge, too. You see an idea (based on a video game) and you can make this into something physical. Kuroda said sometimes, the idea takes a while to materialize, sometimes years. Once he has the answer, it doesn’t take long to bring his idea into fruition.
Another LEGO builder, Tyler Tsujii, a game developer, created many of his pieces and characters through video games. At the exhibit, he was reunited with an old friend from Bothell High School. His friend told the Asian Weekly that he was in awe when he walked into Tsujii’s LEGO room at his home when they were kids.
NOT ALL LEGO builders are males
The LEGO world might be more skewed towards male, like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Well, you might not have heard of Mariann Asanuma of Utah, who is famous in the LEGO world.
Asanuma broke several glass ceilings. As one of the first American women to be hired in the Model Shop at LEGOLAND in California in 2003, she was also the first Asian American female in the U.S. Master LEGO builders and the first Asian American female freelance LEGO artist at the age of 25.
She started playing with LEGOs when she was 6 years old, and Asanuma spent four years creating everything from a life-sized pirate and a 4-foot ladybug, to her most famous model—the Miniland Las Vegas sign.
Asanuma quit LEGOLAND to venture out as an entrepreneur, even though the job was tough to get. She applied five times in more than two years. When she got the job, she started at the lowest job in the shop and spent time building a portfolio to prove she could make a Miniland figure before the company said yes.
Yet, Asanuma left because she wanted to get away from ”the corporate“ mindset. She is also the author of two how-to LEGO books. At BrickCon, she was one of the few female vendors selling LEGO crafts.
For Asanuma, LEGOs run in the family. Her brother Matthew, who is 10 years younger, is another LEGO builder, entrepreneur, and LEGO vendor.
I went to BrickCon looking for something new. It’s part of my survival strategies during Covid, to see and appreciate what’s out there in the world. While I might not be interested in playing with LEGOs myself, I discovered a group of eager folks who immerse themselves into playing, creating, and sharing ideas and innovations. It reminds us to play and dance more during adversity, a recurring theme in my blog. No matter what age you are, nurture the child in you. A stubborn child who won’t give up until she reaches her goal can strengthen our character and willpower.
Tasks and purpose keep us young at heart, feeling energized, fulfilled, and optimistic. It is the essence of resilience.
After getting vaccinated, I go out and experience life differently every single day. That’s how I beat Covid. When was the last time you did something exciting?
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.