Arts & Culture

BrickUniverse convention brings LEGO fans, artists to Raleigh

BrickUniverse, a LEGO convention at the Raleigh Convention Center on Saturday and Sunday, features artist galleries and vendors.
BrickUniverse, a LEGO convention at the Raleigh Convention Center on Saturday and Sunday, features artist galleries and vendors. GETTY

In Brooklyn, right underneath an elevated subway, sits an old factory warehouse. The factory closed long ago, but today it’s the haunt of artists and screenwriters who rent studio spaces. One’s a woodworker and a master craftsman who once built studio models for networks like HBO; one’s the owner of Hazel Village, which sells handmade stuffed woodland animals. There are sculptors, there are painters – and then there’s Jonathan Lopes. Jonathan Lopes’ medium is LEGO.

“I strive for grittiness and realism,” he says, on the phone from his Brooklyn home. He draws inspiration from the world around him. Using primarily earth tones, he builds architectural models representing his immediate neighborhood. He’s built miniatures of firehouses from around the country; he’s built the Apollo Theater and a 12-foot model of the Manhattan Bridge. Recently he’s been moving into more expressive works, designed to be appreciated like paintings. And he stays quite busy.

This weekend, Lopes is a featured builder at BrickUniverse, a sizable LEGO convention at the Raleigh Convention Center. His is one of two galleries – the other contains works by LEGO master builder Jason Burik – and there will be vendors, building zones and impressive works by others in the LEGO community on display.

And while there’s definitely a fun “hey, look what I built!” element, many of these people view their creations as art.

It’s just that the medium is plastic bricks.

“A lot of people that are in this hobby tend to view the LEGO brick as more of an artistic medium than an object of collection,” says local LEGO enthusiast Matthew Kay. “It’s almost like the difference between a comic book collecting kind of show and an art gallery showing.”

Each artist has a style

In 2007, when he was in seventh grade at Ligon Middle School in Raleigh, Kay saw a flier for a North Carolina LEGO Users Group (NCLUG) event at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill. He went and was inspired. Today, this Appalachian State University sophomore is co-founder of YouTube channel Beyond the Brick and is hosting a roundtable and seminar during BrickUniverse’s private fan portion.

Artistically, Kay says, builders have different styles, quirks and concepts they want to express through their work. For instance, you can tell a Lopes creation by the way it’s built.

As for Lopes, what attracted him to BrickUniverse was the offer of a full gallery. As an artist, he’s excited to bring some 30-odd pieces with him – and to have control over how they’re displayed. He once took row houses based on the ultra-gritty HBO series “The Wire” to a different LEGO event, and they ended up tucked behind a train set on green base plates, right in the shadow of a brilliant red skyscraper. He was not pleased.

“It just totally, in my view, detracted from what I was trying to get across with my rough-looking buildings,” Lopes says. “That really attracted me, that I was able to set up my own gallery at BrickUniverse.”

For all ‘brick’ fans

Other members of the LEGO community are enticed by the opportunity to see each other in person. Jacob Unterreiner is driving from Mooresville to display his largely sci-fi-themed works, but also to see people IRL (“in real life”) he’s more used to encountering online. For him, the two days before the convention opens to the public are the most exciting part – these are the setup days, and they’re geared toward hardcore fans.

“That’s when you get to hang out with your friends,” Unterreiner says. After all, as Kay puts it, the convention has two distinct audiences: the public and the fans.

The fans know each other from the Internet and computer games such as “LEGO Universe,” which was Unterreiner’s introduction to fan culture, and are quite invested in LEGO – up to spending lots of money on pieces. They have their own websites and lingo. They’re all aware, for example, that the LEGO Group requests that LEGO be spelled in all-caps and not pluralized with an ‘s.’

And while Kay follows those guidelines – in conversation, he’s careful to say “LEGO bricks,” rather than “LEGOs” – he thinks hardliners excessively irked by folks’ use of the “LEGOs” more intuitive plural form are missing the point. “I think there’s a good bit of leniency there,” he says.

After all, as seriously as members of the LEGO community take their hobby, it’s still all in good fun.

“A lot of people remember that they are building at a really serious scale with a children’s toy, so there’s a jovial atmosphere.”


What: BrickUniverse LEGO Convention

When: 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Where: Raleigh Convention Center, 500 S. Salisbury St.

Cost: $12 each day