Minnesota LEGO masters push creative boundaries brick by brick

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A LEGO scene made by Brickmania from the movie "Fury".

From: FOX 9

The FOX show LEGO Masters showcases what is possible to build with the popular toy. Those possibilities are explored every day in Minnesota’s own vibrant LEGO community.

"I've been hooked since I was four years old,” said Dan Siskind, owner of Brickmania. “Spent all my time playing with the few bricks I had."

In a converted Bombsight Manufacturing building in northeast Minneapolis, the winds of war are still blowing.

"I think the coolest part is that you can build something, tear it down and then build something else," said Siskind.

This battlefield, however, is the headquarters for an army of LEGO lovers led by Siskind as their general.

"We're having a good time doing this,” said Siskind. “It’s a lot of hard work. Running a business isn't just playing with LEGOs all day long. I wish it was." 

Siskind founded Brickmania over 20 years ago after he started making and selling his own custom made LEGO kits on the internet. They became so popular, LEGO itself bought one of his designs. He eventually decided the miniature bricks could be a good foundation for a business.

"For years LEGO wouldn't acknowledge there was an adult fan base,” said Siskind. “All of their models were geared towards kids. They reached out to me to say, ‘We want to change what we are doing at LEGO. We want to put out fan-created sets and we want you to be the first one.’ It was actually the first set I made. My blacksmith shop."

Since then, Brickmania has set its sights on military-themed building kits. Each plane, tank and figurine is made from official LEGO bricks, which are then modified to be as historically accurate as possible.

"The vast majority is World War II airplanes, tanks, jeeps, vehicles that kind of stuff,” said Siskind. “We have started doing modern stuff."

The 40,000-square foot operation has more than 2,000,000 LEGO bricks and employs 45 people. Workers can print faces or uniforms on LEGO pieces and sort them into roughly 2,500 kits a month, which are sold in Brickmania stores in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington D.C. as well to kids of all ages around the world.

"A lot of the most avid collectors of our stuff are probably our age,” said Siskind. “They are late 30s to late 50s or older collectors. There are definitely people who buy our stuff that are more advanced than that."

Siskind's biggest build is a 25-foot long replica of the USS Missouri that recreates the signing ceremony where Japan surrendered to the United States. It took him about six months to build it by hand, using half a million bricks to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

“It's the biggest piece and the most impressive,” he said. “Whatever I'm building is usually my favorite piece. It’s usually the thing I hate the most. It’s the challenge."

Siskind isn't the only local LEGO master who is trying to build a better world using the popular toys. Roy T. Cook has turned his love of LEGO into tiny tributes to some of Minnesota's most well-known local landmarks. He has built incredibly detailed versions of the State Capitol, the Cathedral of St. Paul, the Split Rock Lighthouse and U.S. Bank Stadium.

"I became fascinated with capturing the details and how to scale these things down,” said Cook. “It’s still a limited palette of colors and shapes when you are trying to recreate something as complex and detailed as these sorts of buildings."

Cook says he rekindled his childhood passion for the plastic pieces after his parents passed away within six weeks of each other. Making mosaics of celebrities like Halle Berry and Reese Witherspoon and taking them to LEGO fan conventions became the building blocks of a new hobby.

"How accurately can you reproduce the image with the smallest size with the fewest colors with the fewest different kinds of pieces,” said Cook. “That's what is going to impress the people in the LEGO community."

As a philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota, you could even say Cook wrote the book on LEGO. He co-edited a collection of essays that explore the link between his twin pursuits.

"Thinking of it as a toy is a mistake,” said Cook. “Rather, think of it as a material that is sold primarily in a way that encourages you to build toys out of it, but can also be used to build other things as well. Life-sized cars. People have built a house out of LEGOs."

Cook says the movies are one of the reasons LEGO has been embraced by the mainstream along with the rise of the internet and nerd culture.

"Superheroes are cool,” said Cook. “Reading comic books is cool. Playing video games is cool. Being a nerd is cool. It’s a larger cultural phenomenon. I think LEGO has come along for the ride."

What started as a toy isn't just for kids anymore and is a reminder anything can be a work of art.