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The power of bricks: LEGO levels up in Wairarapa

The Death Star and Millenium Falcon, whimsical fairytale villages, and replicas of iconic New Zealand monuments: LEGO shows and the feats of engineering on display are captivating young and old throughout the country.
Erin Kavanagh-Hall chats with three Wairarapa LEGO builders and exhibitors – about discovering their passion later in life, connecting with fans, and the imaginative and therapeutic power of plastic bricks.< Of Star Destroyers
and winter villages

When Paul Firth bought his first LEGO set in 2014, he imagined it would make for an “interesting” weekend at home.

Little did he know: Just less than a decade later, he and wife Patience would have several rooms of their house taken over by an ever-expanding LEGO collection – or that they would eventually become regular fixtures on the New Zealand Brickshow circuit.

The Masterton-based couple were two of the exhibitors at the recent Wairarapa Brickshow, an Alzheimers Wairarapa fundraiser which attracted over 1500 LEGO enthusiasts and, for some attendees, meant queues of up to 45 minutes at Solway Showgrounds.

In New Zealand, Brickshows have recently gained massive popularity: Held in most of the main centres and some regions, and featuring massive sculptures of everything from the Titanic, to the Taj Mahal, to the Wellington Central Fire Station.

Though Paul and Patience are new to LEGO shows, they are beginning to carve out a reputation among hardcore fans: Patience for her sprawling Winter Villages, sprinkled with “a bit of adult humour”; Paul for his collection of spacecraft from a certain space opera.

In fact, Paul’s study is a Star Wars fan’s dream: Shelves lined with X-wing starfighters and ominous AT-TE Walkers, cabinets full of sturdy R2D2 and Grogu figures, and 2D art pieces of “all the best bad guys” lining the walls.

“All together, I’ve now got 484 sets – and I’ve built about 170,” Paul said.

“Every Millenium Falcon set LEGO has put out, I own. I haven’t built them all yet – we’re running out of room!”

In the next room, a former conservatory, is housed an array of Edwardian shop fronts, castles and fairground rides, kept behind glass to protect the bricks from sunlight – and curious grandchildren.

Paul and Patience started building at “an advanced age” – joining the thousands around the world introduced to the art form by the various Youtube reviewers and series like LEGO Masters.

Back in 2014, Paul and Patience, living in the UK, were foster parents to young two boys — and were using LEGO as a tool to help with concentration and cognitive development.

Paul found his first set, a build of WALL-E from the Disney/Pixar movie, while browsing a LEGO store in Sheffield, and thought he “may as well give it a try” for himself.

He and Patience caught the bug and, inspired by YouTubers like Bricksie — known for his highly detailed LEGO cityscapes — started doing their own builds most weekends.

Paul’s obsession reached a new level in 2019, on coming across a Stars Wars LEGO exhibition in Palmerston North.

A long-time devotee of George Lucas’ film franchise [“except for the prequels”], Paul got started on his collection and, within a few weeks of the show, had bought eight new Star Wars sets.

“I went a bit mad,” he laughed.

The largest piece he has built is the Galactic Empire’s Star Destroyer which had a total of 4500 bits – though some others have upwards of 7000 bits.

Many of his builds he has found on sale [most large sets can retail for up to $2000], though he has also been able to source some LEGO Employee Gift Sets – only released to LEGO Group workers, ambassadors and educators – through online connections.

For her builds, Patience prefers a more whimsical approach, populating her winter villages – one of which takes up “a whole dining room table” with trains, cute cottages, fairground attractions, snow-capped plants, and various figurines for kids to find.

Usually, these are “easter eggs” from various universes – The Wizard of Oz, The Simpsons, Frozen and, naturally, Star Wars.

“It’s all about the storytelling,” Patience said.

“I add a lot of little scenes, like elves having a snowball fight, or fireman shovelling up the snow. Sometimes, I’ll add some humour for the adults – like a dog stopping to have a wee.

“The kids love all the Christmas figures – though they’re always a bit bemused if there’s more than one Santa!

“The more you look, the more you find.”

She and Paul started exhibiting for the first time last year, starting with the Eltham Brickshow in Taranaki, then progressing to larger shows in Palmerston North and Wellington.

Paul said the Brickshow environment is “very enjoyable”, but also overwhelming.

“The Wellington show was a bit monstrous!” Paul said.

“LEGO Masters NZ had just finished on TV, and they were expecting about 6000 people. We got 10,000.

“The lines were at least four people deep – people were straining to look over each other’s heads at the displays.

“You’re on your feet most of the day, your voice gets tired from talking, and some of the halls get very warm. So, it is tiring.”

Transporting the builds is also a painstaking exercise, though the couple have got loading boxes into their car down to a fine art – with larger pieces, like the Star Destroyer, resting on top.

“It does get a bit scary going over a sharp bend in the road!” Patience said.

Despite the challenges, they said the fans’ reactions are worth it.

“The kids are just mesmerised – if they see something that amazes them, they’ll let you know,” Paul said.

“They’re so knowledgeable as well. I once met a 14-year-old, who proceeded to tell me all about the history of the ships from the original Star Wars trilogy.

“And it’s always great to see their faces light up when they spot Elsa or Baby Yoda in the winter village.”

Marianne’s got her eye on the clock

When Marianne decided to try LEGO building, after becoming “too good” at jigsaw puzzles, she initially hesitated: “It wasn’t a lady thing, or an adult thing.”

That was seven years ago – and the Masterton local is now gaining recognition up and down the country for her renderings of famous war memorials and beloved small town clocks.

Unlike good friends Paul and Patience, Marianne – who exhibits at Brickshows under her mononym – specialises in original sculptures, known in LEGO circles as My Own Creations, or MOCs.

Marianne’s MOCs tend to take the shape of New Zealand clock towers – from the Shakespeare-themed Stratford Glockenspiel, to the 160-year-old Diamond Jubilee monument in Christchurch.

Her contribution to the Wairarapa Brickshow was the Carterton Clock Tower – complete with controversial colour scheme – which went down a treat with local fans.

“That was a real joy to work on. Though I’m not so sure about the colours they chose for the clock. I do prefer the bright, daffodil yellow I used!”

Marianne’s journey with LEGO started in childhood – but, sadly, her passion was “squashed” by her parents.

“My parents bought us each a set back from Holland – my brother got the police station, I got the hospital.

“My brother and I did some building together, mostly making oil rigs. But, mum discouraged me – she said it wasn’t for girls. So, I stopped.

“When I started again, I wasn’t sure: I was always told it wasn’t a lady thing, or an adult thing. But, most ‘grown up’ hobbies involve play of some kind – gardening is basically playing with dirt. So, I gave it a go.”

Marianne’s first build, which took about four months to complete, was a Dutch garden scene, paying tribute to her heritage – featuring windmills, drawbridges, and a worker’s quarters.

Eventually, she entered a local Brickshow and won her first award.

“The feedback was amazing. One of the judges saw the climbing flowers and said, ‘I can tell you’re a gardener’.”

She soon became a regular on the national show circuit, displaying her series of “New Zealand icons” [such as the Beehive, old Parliament Building, and Meridian Building] in Wellington, Christchurch, Nelson, and Palmerston North.

She then began showing her signature town clocks: among them, the Hopwood Clock Tower in Palmerston North, the Hastings clock tower memorial, and the Clock Tower Chambers in Westport.

One of Marianne’s largest and most intricate builds was the Wellington War Memorial Carillon — which, along with the Westport Chambers, won her an award for realism at the Christchurch Brickshow.

“The trellis effect took about three months alone — I really wanted to do it justice.

“It was just about as tall as me at the end.”

When preparing for a new build, Marianne will find an image of the clock tower on Google Maps, and “zoom in” to examine the “nitty gritty details”.

She will then sketch out the building, and fit each of the elements to scale – which takes “a bit of problem solving”.

Though the building process is “incredibly therapeutic”, it can be time intensive.

“What holds us up is waiting for the parts to arrive. A lot of the bricks you have to order from overseas, and they’re not cheap.

“I try not to obsess over the time too much, and just enjoy the process. I usually work on three builds at once — usually in front of a movie or a TV series.”

She said female LEGO builders are still a rarity throughout the world, but the scene is steadily becoming more diverse.

“It’s way more inclusive. A lot of builders are now encouraging their wives to try it out.

“The community here is generally very supportive.”

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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