LEGO artist brings 400,000-piece city to Wisconsin Dells


New at Buffalo Phil’s Pizza & Grille, 150 Gasser Rd., Wisconsin Dells, is a massive LEGO® masterpiece that was created by a full-time LEGO artist.

The artist, Paul Hetherington of Vancouver, recently was in the Dells to assemble his 400,000-piece creation. It is the centerpiece of a sprawling LEGO BRICK CITY whose construction began earlier this year by children and employees of the restaurant.

The LEGOs complement another playful aspect of dining at Buffalo Phil’s: seven miniature trains that deliver food to diners’ tables. The LEGO city started popping up in the middle of the train tracks and spread from there. It is loaded with references to the area, classic movie scenes and modern adventures.

Some LEGO creations at eye level for toddlers, although it’s not unusual to find grown-ups stooping down to get a closer look too.

Hetherington has been building with LEGOs nearly 25 years and, with this commission from Buffalo Phil’s, decided to set aside his day job and commit himself fulltime to his LEGO art. He painstakingly researches architecture, art and pop culture in developing his masterpieces.

Hetherington is a regular at LEGO conventions too, displaying his work at some 15 expos per year, including BrickCon and BrickUniverse. It was at an expo earlier this year that owners of Buffalo Phil’s first met the artist. They were attending in search of ideas for building their indoor LEGO city. 

The pinnacle of Hetherington’s LEGO success was having one of his models displayed this year in the masterpiece gallery at the company’s LEGO House in Denmark.

The commission for Buffalo Phil’s took three months to build, is four feet tall and has an 8-x10-foot footprint.

Here are excerpts from publicist Carla Minsky’s Q&A with the artist:

Is this your full-time job? Up until a few months ago I had a day job and this was my hobby. With the Buffalo Phil’s commission, I decided to do this full time. It’s exciting, a chance to be creative every day, to build my own models based on my own ideas. Someday I’d like to have a traveling show that I could take to museums and science centers.

What is it like building a career around LEGOS? People are really positive about it, curious of course when they hear what I do, but for me it’s a dream come true. The truth is it’s a lot of work behind the scenes, sorting LEGOs and coming up with designs. The real joy is in being creative.

Do you remember the first LEGO set you received? Gosh, it was a yellow truck, one of the basic LEGO trucks from 1973. Sets were extremely basic back then. I was 3, so I got an early start.

Why do you think LEGOs continue to stand the test of time even as technology and apps and VR expands? I think it’s the nature of the brick, it’s almost like the toy version of our DNA because you can create anything with the LEGO brick. It ties into our innate curiosity and desire to know how things work.

What inspires your designs? So many different things. Usually a picture of a building or a piece of art, something in that sparks an idea.

What’s your process? Do you sketch or use a computer program? I work organically, I need the bricks in front of me to create. I do a lot of research, first of the architectural style and subject matter to finetune my inner vision. Then the process begins of translating what I see in my mind’s eye into LEGO bricks.

Is there math involved in what you do? Definitely. There’s the basic math of stacking bricks but also putting bricks sideways. LEGO motors are the power functions and there is huge potential to automate your creations, even program them. We’re getting into robotics now. There is almost no limit. 

Have you influenced new LEGO sets? They made one of my designs into a set. It was a joint venture with the LEGO company and BrickLink, an online LEGO marketplace. It came out in May – it’s called “Imagine It, Build It!” – and it’s a design that is exploding with ideas.

What other art forms do you enjoy? I started out as a musician, played drums for 15 years when I was younger. Then I took to swing dancing. I don’t draw or sculpt, so LEGO is my outlet for this kind of creativity. I’m very visual, and it’s been an evolution going from LEGO collecting without thoughts of becoming a LEGO artist to having LEGOs bring out the creative ideas in me.

Did you study art or architecture? No. Colors and textures are very instinctive to me. I know when something is right or the proportions are off. It’s my superpower!

What’s in your personal LEGO collection? Most of my creations from the last 10 years I tend to leave together. I look at them as place in time and don’t try to update them. I also favor the wooden LEGO toys. There are interesting parts to those and I try to get one of each part.

How many LEGO pieces do you estimate you have? It keeps growing, so maybe two million, two-and-a-half million. I may need a bigger house than I have right now!

How do you transport such a massive creation without it falling apart? I build it so it can break apart into 10-inch by 10-inch sections, then pack those into cardboard boxes and then pack the cardboard boxes into wooden crates with palettes on the bottom. I am beholden to forklift drivers! The model is not glued.

Are there rare LEGO pieces? Definitely, that’s where the BrickLink company comes in, with people from around the world tracking down pieces. Mini figures can run hundreds of dollars. There’s a huge collectors market for sets and parts.

What do you hear from adults about your creations? Adults get a kick out of LEGOs because it is a timeless toy. The comment I get the most is, we have an attic full of that stuff, and they’re going to go home and dig out the LEGOs and start creating themselves. It’s just as much for the adults as for the kids.