The world, in LEGOs

Eric Harshbarger has created a lot of things in the last five years: grandfather clocks, a globe, a Mona Lisa replica, and an executive?s desk, to name just a few. Impressive as this may be, it is more noteworthy because all of these things were constructed of LEGO bricks.

Last Tuesday, Harshbarger brought some of his smaller pieces to campus and put them, and himself, on display in the UC before giving a lecture about his ?adult hobby?-turned-profession.

AB Lectures brought Harshbarger to campus at the request of Tylesha Drayton, a civil and environmental engineering masters student who teaches the StuCo course, Lego Design.

?[Drayton] knew him from a previous encounter, and wanted to bring him to campus to speak to her class. But she didn?t have the money for that, so she came to me and asked if AB could get him,? said AB chair Chris Smoak. ?We realized it would fit in perfectly with Carnival?s theme of ?Be a Kid Again,? so we decided to bring him.?

?In many ways, this is more of a business than a hobby,? said Harshbarger. ?I?m trying to make more money than I spend on bricks.? He estimated that he currently owns three quarters of a million individual pieces.

Perhaps Harshbarger?s largest creation ever was a full-size desk, complete with working drawers, made for an executive in Seattle. By the time the desk was finished, it could hold over 120 pounds of weight, no small feat for a frame made up solely of light plastic bricks. Over 35,000 individual bricks went into the desk. The honor for tallest structure, however, goes to a 12' Eiffel Tower model that had to be broken down into 20 pieces for transport.

Harshbarger?s LEGO creations have even garnered him some time on TV. Last year, he created a model of Conan O?Brien?s head, which was presented to the comedian on the Today Show. He also spent a day standing on a billboard creating a 10' square portrait of Dean Cain, the host of the show Ripley?s Believe It Or Not!, for that show.

The LEGO company even asked Harshbarger to make a mosaic for its New York office.

?I was very pleased to have some of my work displayed at the official office,? he wrote to The Tartan in an e-mail. ?[However], they have never directly offered me a job, and I?ve never asked for one. Even though LEGO is probably a great company to work for, I like to work independently ... on my own terms.?

Harshbarger made his first LEGO sculpture, a model of R2-D2, in 1999.

?I had some extra time and extra money, and just started LEGO-building,? he said. At the time, he had just returned to his hometown of Auburn, Ala., from a job on the west coast in the computer industry. ?The whole summer of ?99 was spent acclimating myself to the large online community of people who build with LEGO bricks?. It took me just about three months to find out where to buy pieces.?

A few months later, Harshbarger created a model of a LEGO knight figure 16 times larger than the original piece for the Media Lab at MIT, right down to the adjustable/removable shield.

?[The knight was] my first ?professional gig,?? he said.

From there, the job just got larger and larger.

?Within a few months, I got my first major commission, a replica of this grandfather clock,? said Harshbarger.

The replica clock was life-size and actually ran. It used LEGO Technic pieces for the gears and regular LEGO bricks for everything else except for the weights. Later, a customer in Madison, Wis., heard about the clock and asked for one like it.

In late 2000, Harshbarger moved on to two-dimensional mosaics. ?I had some computer programming experience, so I wrote a program that would create a mosaic [from any picture],? he said. He created a 60"x80" mosaic of the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland as his first mosaic, and then made a 6'x8' replica of the Mona Lisa for the customer in Madison who bought the clock.

?I generally try to steer clients from sculptures to mosaics ... for a number of practical reasons,? Harshbarger said. ?I?m enjoying mosaic-building more than sculptures.?

Harshbarger, who was the only independent large scale LEGO artist five years ago, has started a field.

?[R2-D2] was the first time anyone outside of the company had built anything that large,? Harshbarger said. ?At this point, there are about a dozen people out there making sculptures and another dozen making mosaics.?

One of those new sculptors is Henry Lim, an artist who has worked on joint projects with Harshbarger.

?[Harshbarger] showed that it?s possible for consumers to purchase vast quantities of LEGO [bricks] and create giant structures on par with the professional LEGOLAND models. His philosophy of ?just build? influenced me to follow suit,? Lim wrote in an e-mail to The Tartan.

Even today, the job poses a challenge to Harshbarger. Though he tries to make all of his structures free-standing, he often has to glue them together to prevent structural damage during shipping. And because of the way Legos fit together, he has to use PVC pipe glue instead of regular white glue. ?Only glue a couple hours a day or you get completely stoned,? he warned.

?The challenge is just acquiring the right pieces,? said Harshbarger. His main source of bricks had been large blue tubs of commonly used bricks sold by the company; however, LEGO recently announced that blue tubs will be discontinued soon. As soon as he heard the news, he ordered 300 tubs. Days later, a UPS truck arrived at his house filled with 300 boxes of bricks, which he is still using.

?I might move onto something else (completely non-LEGO related) [after the tubs run out],? Harshbarger wrote, ?but it will still be a while before I run out of my stockpile.?

Interested buyers may have to think twice about rushing off to place orders, though; each project takes Harshbarger several weeks to complete and prices can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Visit www.ericharshbarger.com/lego/portfolio.html for a full, illustrated list of Harshbarger?s creations.