Do you like art challenges? Here’s one: Get a short glimpse of a completely imaginary, computer-generated object that is mostly grey, then try to build a seven-foot model of it out of plastic bricks—a model that rewards careful scrutiny, one that provides aesthetic pleasure. Mark Kelso loved that idea, so much so that he invested four years and $1,500 worth of Lego parts to pull it off. Kelso created a large model of a spaceship featured in the strategy video game Halo Wars.
“I saw that ship in a video game and I thought, ‘that’s such a cool design. I want to see if I can do that in Lego; I wonder if I can do that.’ I wanted to see how close I could get,” says Kelso. “I was always building spaceships in Lego, even when I was very little. I liked building things I saw elsewhere; I wanted to recreate them. I am inspired to paint things that I’ve seen and experienced. I want them to filter through me and come out as my reproduction, my interpretation of the subject.”
Serious, adult Lego builders, hundreds of thousands of them, can be found all over the world. There are conventions to celebrate Lego creations, and Internet sites to document them. Generally it is frowned upon to cut, paint, or otherwise modify the Lego bricks, or to use a different company’s bricks. The somewhat insular society of Lego builders love to argue about such things. Kelso has his own personal code (“I feel like I need to be true to Lego because they’ve done so much for us”) but he laughs off much of the debate that he reads and sometimes fuels. For example, he created a rudimentary armature to help support the weight of the 35,000 pieces of Lego needed to make this ship, the UNSC Spirit of Fire. That used to be a major no-no among Lego builders. A sculpture officially sanctioned by Lego that used metal armature broke that wide open a few years ago. Kelso used 1″-x-3″ wooden boards to give the Spirit of Fire some internal structure.
The first issue Kelso faced when building the ship was fundamental. What did the Spirit of Fire look like? Kelso only saw it for fleeting seconds during gameplay. He managed to get screen captures of the video game, but the resolution was poor. He found a book that showed the ship from the side view, but this was only part of the puzzle. Undeterred, Kelso started the project. He posted the work in progress online, and someone working for the company that produced Halo Wars saw Kelso’s piece and notified the 3-D designer who imagined the ship. That designer contacted Kelso and offered him the blueprints for Spirit of Fire, on the condition that Kelso not share them. “He was stoked about it,” recalls Kelso. “He was going nuts. That happens all the time–you start building something Lego that other people can relate to, whether it’s from a movie or a video game or a portrait of someone, and people freak out. I wish paintings garnered the same enthusiasm.”
Speaking of painting, Kelso’s representational paintings demonstrate immense technical abilities and a melodic sense of the essence in a scene. But rather than this sensibility being in jarring contrast with hard plastic bricks and warring spaceships, it instead informs it, and binds them both together in Kelso’s artistic identity. Don’t see a spaceship. See a shape with passages of quiet and muted color and bits of stronger hue. See a composition in which carefully chosen areas of high detail stand out against smooth planes. Kelso decided early on that he would make this ship his own, instead of adhering slavishly to the designer’s creation or what the blueprints suggest. So much so that he planned on calling his Lego build Eye of Chaos until the designer told Kelso to name it what he wanted—or even use his name, Spirit of Fire.
“When I was working on the big ship I was really looking at the surface texture, and paying close attention to where there’d be spots of color, where it would be light grey or dark grey. I had to continually ask myself about how much texture to include. Some areas must be blank so other areas are emphasized. I asked the same kind of questions you ask when painting. What is the relationship of one color to next, one value to next? If you have pleasing relationships you have something pleasing from an aesthetic viewpoint.
“I was working with subtle variations in value,” Kelso says. “In Lego creation you may be using one color of brick but it changes in value depending on where it is. If a brick is facing upward it looks lighter than it does underneath the ship. And you use that when you are building. And I use heavy visual activity in some places and keep it light in other areas. Some areas in the wings are completely smooth. There are panels in the ship with smooth walls. Then there are places where it is very busy, with hoses and pipes and panels and knobs to make it look like some kind of freaky alien creation.”
Kelso compares this to some of his paintings, such as “The Unveiling.” “In that landscape depicting Moraine Lake there are areas that have the texture of rocks, there’s the softer texture of trees, and the very smooth water. There are diagonal lines in the striations, there’s the vertical of trees, and the clear horizontals. It’s the juxtaposition of things to make them very pleasing.”
The Indianapolis artist says his goal was never to sell the Spirit of Fire, but he would. “I showed it recently and said to email me for a price,” he says. “I will try eBay, Facebook, and a few more conventions to see if anybody wants to buy it. Otherwise I’ll just recycle the bricks into another project.” Ω