Friday, January 16, 2015

They Create: The Lego Artistry of Don Rice

Don Rice is a good neighbor and friend. One evening, I asked him for a favor. We live in the same apartment building, so I went over to his place so that he could help me with something important.

When I arrived, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a large table full of exquisite creations made of Lego. Naturally, I asked Don all about it. Don and his family are industrious, creative people. You never know what you’re going to see over there.

There is an amazing historical gem in our neighborhood of Inwood called the Dyckman Farmhouse. Don is a passionate Inwood historian and has been working on building his own Dyckman Farmhouses out of Lego. He’s worked hard on this and has amassed an impressive collection.

Everywhere I looked there were Dyckman Farmhouses. Some were large and elaborate, some were smaller and pared down. I fell in love with Don’s Lego creations. That got my wheels turning.

Don let me come over to talk about his Lego artistry and allowed me to photograph his pieces. That interview turned into my first post for my new series They Create.

Don, Give us some background information about yourself and your career.

I was raised in Rochester NY. In high school I wanted to be a sax player. After college I eventually got a job playing on cruise ships. I also arranged music for entertainers and wrote my own stuff for the band. 

 After working on the ships for about three years I moved to NYC to see if a musical living could be made there as a player, arranger or copyist. It was the third option, a music notation guy, that the phone mostly rang for.

Music copyists deliver clear, quick and accurate notation of music for bands in live shows, jingles or recordings. This was the early 1990s and use of the fountain pen on Broadway was just beginning to be transformed by computers and laser printers. From the ships I already knew how to operate music notation software and had a sense for what a page of music should look like.

In 1992 I was hired to work in a Broadway show’s music department, and that show led to another, and another and another. And here it is more than 20 years later.

What got you started with Lego? Did you build with them as a child? Did your boys influence you?

My brothers and I played with Lego as kids from a young age almost every week after church. This was the late 60’s. We had a couple of drawers full of bricks, and we’d pull them out and dump them on the table.

There were fewer colors and kinds of bricks, so whatever we were building would evolve on the fly, depending on what parts were still in the bin. I don’t remember having any kits back then, just bricks in bulk, which sometimes came with a brochure with building ideas.

More recently, when my kids were young we’d build from kits; often Bionicle and Technic - other types of Lego building sets. I think I enjoyed those sets as much as my kids did. On one memorable trip to Toys r Us we found big containers of unsorted Bionicle parts on sale. Unbelievable! Our whole family spent the afternoon seeing what we could build from undocumented parts. 

Please talk a little about your process. It seems like a real engineering and architectural focus.

When I started thinking about making a Dyckman Farmhouse model from Lego bricks, I needed help, so went looking for drawings and photos of the house. As luck would have it the Library of Congress has measured set of drawings of the farmhouse from the 1930s online. Bingo!

By matching bricks physically to a printout of the drawings, I was able to complete a first model. There were several subsequent iterations as I tried to make the model smaller and use fewer bricks.

Since Lego bricks are a form of pixelation, as a builder I had to decide the smallest unit of detail I wanted to show accurately, and let that detail dictate the scale of the model. It could be the windows, the roof, a door or the porch railing.

I'm finding these very aesthetically appealing, humorous and engaging. Talk about the artistry.

I try not to think about artistry when building. It can be easy to overthink. I try to listen to nonverbal gut feelings, and let them part dictate what’s working well. By trying to tune in to a sub-verbal place, the element of playful appeal you mention has emerged. 

What prompted you to make monochromactic Lego creations? They're very powerful, both individually and as a group.

I think the monochromatic forms are fun and I think they do invite our subconscious into a dialogue about the meaning of the house, and feelings can bubble up.

Remember Peter Max in the late 60s? I do, vividly. I even ordered a Peter Max paperback from our school book club. I loved his bold sense of color and line. And his images could be playful too, mixed in with messages of flower-power 60’s idealism. So that’s an influence. 

You’re an Inwood Historian with a beautiful collection of maps, art and artifacts. You've used Lego to deeply explore your interest in the Dyckman Farmhouse. What was this like for you as an Inwood Historian?

Several of the monochromatic Lego models show the farmhouse being worked on by construction workers. And it just so happens that a century ago in 1915 the farmhouse was renovated and then given to the city. Being a history buff has helped me set down roots in this neighborhood, and it’s surely affecting how these models take shape.

Your work with Lego has expanded into philanthropy. Please talk more about that.

About a year ago the Dyckman FarmhouseMuseum Alliance (a non-profit that supports the farmhouse) asked if I’d like to become a trustee. So I’m involved there as a member of the board. Fundraising and friend-raising are two things we do to help keep Dyckman in the community mix.

The farmhouse is the oldest building in Inwood and as such it has ongoing preservation and maintenance needs. But more importantly it has been a witness to the passage of time up here. The stories it can tell us make it a vital force in the neighborhood. If a Lego idea (model kit, calendar or whatever it might be) can help connect the farmhouse’s force to the community it becomes exciting. We’re there to serve. 

Talk about your mission with providing enrichment for kids

After finishing the large farmhouse model, I thought it would be fun to make a smaller version, one that kids might like to build. Trying to get a model down to 100 bricks or less was the challenge, as was keeping it easy to build, recognizable and (importantly), affordable.

It’s still a work in process, making instructions, trying out packaging, locating inexpensive pieces and shops that might be willing to stock a locally made kit. Hopefully it will be something that kids can build while they think about our neighborhood history, and at the same time (hopefully) generate an ongoing trickle of income for the farmhouse.

You spoke beautifully about how you make time for your art. Could you elaborate? People are always talking about not having time to pursue their interests. How do you do it?

I’ve found it’s possible to be creative and productive even with small chunks of time. On school mornings after the kids leave for school and before I get ready for work, there’s a short window of time, about fifteen or twenty minutes - just enough to try a building idea or start a new model. I may muse about a project while riding the subway or at lunch and the next morning try it out.

Do you have any plans for future Lego projects?

Would it be fun to build the old arch on Broadway and 216th? You bet. Henry Hudson Bridge? 215th Street IRT station? Cloisters? Oh yes. 

They Create: The Lego Artistry of Don Rice is the first in an ongoing series about creative people across many disciplines.

This is where the magic happens.

A small sample of Don's beautifully curated collection of Inwood artifacts.

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