Connecting to nature and LEGOs at Phoenix Zoo

Connecting to nature and LEGOs at Phoenix Zoo

By Kimberly Hosey

My son and I recently went to the Phoenix Zoo to check out the newest exhibit – but none of the new animals moved.

That was exactly as it should be.

The exhibit is made of a million LEGO bricks, 27 sculptures scattered along the zoo’s paths and trails.

“Nature Connects: Art with Lego Bricks,” from award-winning New York artist Sean Kenney, has been displayed in several cities. The collection includes an oversize monarch butterfly on a milkweed blossom (constructed from almost 40,000 bricks), a roseate skimmer dragonfly (27,788 bricks), a herd of deer (84,442 bricks) and seahorses swimming through a vibrant coral reef (88,516 bricks). The largest sculpture, at 133,263 bricks, is a family of polar bears that took 1,048 hours to build.

And here I was proud helping my niece build a rudimentary “house” one afternoon.

The vivid sculptures are, surprisingly, reasonably accurate—no cartoonish animals here—and so imminently fitting for the Phoenix Zoo’s educational focus.

Also particularly fitting is the theme behind Kenney’s project: Connections. Through his sculptures Kenney invites viewers to study the forms of the flora and fauna, and to reflect on the connections between things—and ourselves—in nature.

“Much as LEGO pieces connect, everything in nature is connected in an intricate balance,” Kenney said.

The exhibit, done in partnership with the zoo and the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation, features extinct, endangered, threatened or vulnerable animals.

“Everyone can get something out of the exhibit, whether it’s an educational message about conservation and ecosystems, an appreciation for the beauty of nature, the fun of seeing giant, larger-than-life sculptures built with millions of LEGO bricks, or even the inspirational back story about my flight from white-collar employment to follow this crazy dream of becoming a ‘professional kid,’” Kenney said.

The pieces are designed and placed to encourage specific and meaningful reflection about specific animals or ecosystems. The Africa Trail is a temporary home to LEGO zebra and wildebeest, as well as a “disappearing rhinoceros,” which is made in a series of flat sections—making the animal appear to vanish when viewed from a certain angle, like its real-life wild counterparts. A snow leopard, jeweled chameleon, and Galapagos tortoise, with a finch perched atop, await visitors along the Tropics and Children’s Trails, the latter of which teaches visitors about Charles Darwin’s momentous visit to the Galapagos Islands, where he studied finch species. In front of the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation stands a model of the extinct dodo.

The exhibit, like the rest of the zoo, is perfect for all ages, though your experience of it is likely to vary depending on the age of your companions. As my son and I discussed the fate of the dodo and its closest living relative (the Nicobar pigeon, a rainbow-hued, flamboyant but shy bird you have to check out in the Tropical Flights aviary), a nearby family exclaimed to a toddler and grade-school girl: “Look! Just like your LEGOs at home!” We all, however, marveled at the time and number of bricks it took, and later my son found a kindred spirit in a chatty 8-year-old who had a lot to say about sea turtles.

As we checked out the sculptures, we, of course, visited the animals. This is what we call “perfect zoo weather,” and the animals seemed to agree: The giraffes were all out having a leisurely lunch, allowing us to compare patterns of the two species. A giant anteater ambled along a fence. The zoo’s family of orangutans—two adults and a baby—lounged together for a family picnic. Big cats, reptiles, birds, primates, you name it.

Go to the Phoenix Zoo, as always, to observe the animals and enjoy a day full of nature and science. And for the next few months, check out the amazing LEGO sculptures and discover even more about connections—in nature and in these amazing works of art.

Also coming up, plan to check out ZooLights. A whole new menagerie lights up—literally. Millions of lights in hundreds of displays decorate the zoo in a parade of animated animals. You can also check out light and music shows, activities for the little one, and carousel rides. ZooLights runs Wednesday, Nov. 23 to Sunday, Jan. 8.

The zoo opens daily at 9 a.m. through the winter. It closes at 5 p.m. through October and then closes at 4 p.m. Nov. 1 to Jan. 8. It closes at 5 again Jan. 9 to May 31. Call or check online for extended hours in October.