116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A Day Away: Muscatine LEGO exhibit built brick by brick
Stroll through Art Center’s ‘Nature Connects’ LEGO sculptures
MUSCATINE — A vibrant, colorful temporary exhibition at the Muscatine Art Center was built one brick at a time, until after 3,202 hours, New York artist Sean Kenney had assembled 321,680 LEGO bricks into 17 creations related to the natural world.
It’s a world in which a fox stalks a rabbit; a hummingbird drinks from a trumpet flower; goldfinches gather at a bird feeder; a rubber ducky; a gardener hoeing in the soil; four parrot portraits; and blinking lights, theater marquees, a video screen and people bustling about Times Square.
“Nature Connects“ will be on view through Feb. 20, free of charge, in the Stanley Gallery linked to the Muscatine Art Center, a historic house museum at 1314 Mulberry Ave., in the middle of a residential district where old and new architecture live side by side.
If you go
What: Sean Kenney’s “Nature Connects” sculptures, made with LEGO bricks
Where: Stanley Gallery, Muscatine Art Center, 1314 Mulberry Ave., Muscatine
When: Through Feb. 20, 2022
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday; 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sunday; closed Mondays and holidays
You definitely will need to consult a map app to wend your way there, about 68 miles southeast of downtown Cedar Rapids and 36 miles southeast of downtown Iowa City. Because of the early January snowstorm, I opted to take I-380 to I-80 east, then Highway 38 south.
When I reached the city, my app took me through an industrial area where lo and behold, I discovered Heinz Tomato Ketchup is made in Muscatine. Who knew? Actually, several of my Facebook friends had relatives who worked there, and one had a grandfather who grew tomatoes for the Heinz plant in the 1930s or ’40s.
When I reached the art center, I parked across the street, not knowing that a parking lot can be accessed from Cedar Street behind the museum complex. And here’s where I made a big mistake. Instead of turning around and leaving the way I arrived, I set my map app to just go north to leave town. That led me to Tipton Road, where the app failed to say the hard surface would end, leading me across endless miles of gravel where blowing snow was covering more than half the road. As a farm girl, I’ve driven on worse, but I advise you not to take this route. On the upside, the gravel finally connected to Moscow Road, so now I can say I’ve seen two Moscows on different continents.
Nature Connects indoors
Since 2012, Kenney’s award-winning LEGO sculptures have toured the world, stopping at botanical gardens, arboretums, zoos and science centers, most of which are outdoors, including several installations at Reiman Gardens in Ames. Five sets of sculptures currently are on tour, including the set in Muscatine.
Many pieces are larger than life, like the 9-foot tall hummingbird sculpture on the Stanley Gallery’s main floor, while others are in miniature, like the Times Square diorama downstairs. The lawn mower appears to be life-size.
The common thread between such diverse subjects revolves around the question: Just as LEGO bricks interconnect, how is our natural world interconnected?
Bringing the exhibit to the Art Center was no walk in the park.
“The staff looked into the LEGO exhibit quite a few years ago,” said Director Melanie Alexander of Iowa City, who has been with the museum a little more than nine years.
A bequest in 2018 allowed the board to consider a “higher tier” exhibit like this one.
“Art made out of LEGOS, with a nature component, appeals to families in the Iowa-Illinois region,” Alexander noted.
Various staff members had seen versions of Kenney’s LEGO exhibits at Reiman Gardens in Ames, the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., and during travels in Florida, so they were well-acquainted with the artistry — as typically seen outdoors.
“We were excited when an exhibit was developed for indoor venues,” Alexander said.
Because the museum typically plans exhibits several years out, officials also had time to do additional fundraising. Alexander declined to say just how much it cost to bring the exhibit to the Art Center, but did say, “It cost four to five times the amount of most exhibits for us. It took several years of budgeting to bring it in.”
Adding to the fundraising impetus is the fact that Art Center admission is free, whereas most sites that host these LEGO exhibits charge viewing fees, Alexander noted.
But it has paid off. Even though the Art Center was closed for a short time in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, attendance continued to drop off as the pandemic rolled on.
“This exhibit brought (the museum) back to life,” Alexander said. “It opened in mid-November, and in the first few weeks, we had walk-ins, every grade at Jefferson and Franklin elementaries in Muscatine, and home-school and youth group activities, so we’ve been busy in several ways.”
The museum’s free admission policy also means that kids who see the exhibit on a field trip can bring back their whole families to share in the fun. Local youths also were invited to submit their own LEGO creations to be showcased in the hallway leading to the Stanley Gallery. Submissions came from ages 3 through high school, and the displays have been a big hit with young visitors.
“Little kids get excited when they see and recognize things on view, like Unikitty,” Alexander said. “We’re delighted to show off things they’ve made.”
Adults also will find plenty to pique their interest, especially the way when you stand back, the surfaces look smooth, but when you step up to the ropes, you can see the intricacy of the placement of the 3D bricks. Plus, the sculptures are just whimsical and fascinating, and all the signage will school readers on the status of the animals, their role in nature and fun facts, as well as the role the human and inanimate objects play in connecting with nature.
It’s definitely a family friendly, all ages exploration — just like the adjacent house museum.
The afternoon of Jan. 4, parents with children in tow, from toddlers to upper elementary, romped through the LEGO exhibit rooms, which include a photo cutout and play stations. Then they headed upstairs in the house to the second-floor Learn to Look Gallery, featuring hands-on projects designed for kids. Along the way, the parlor still was decked for the holidays, with a large antique toy display on the floor, radiating from the tree.
The Musser Mansion wa built in 1908 as a wedding gift from Peter Musser for his daughter, Laura Musser McColm and her husband, Edwin McColm, who married in 1903.
The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and later this year, the site’s 1930 Japanese garden will be rehabilitated at a projected cost of $225,000, funded by grants. Alexander said it’s the only existing pre-World War II Japanese garden in Iowa.
Peter Musser made his money in managing lumber mills and banks, and Edwin McColm owned Muscatine’s largest dry goods store.
Laura Musser McColm, active in investments and family businesses, kept the books for her husband’s store, and managed its business affairs after he died in 1933. Laura was a mezzo-soprano who studied music in Chicago and Paris, and she Edwin are listed as founders of Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant. In 1954, she received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Iowa Wesleyan, and served on the board of trustees until her death in 1964.
In 1938, she married William T. Atkins and moved to Kansas City, but retained ownership of her Muscatine mansion. Alice, her daughter with Edwin, died shortly after her birth in 1907, so Laura’s stepdaughter, Mary Catherine Atkins McWhirter, and Laura’s niece, Mary Musser Gilmore were her heirs. After her death, the women offered the mansion to the city of Muscatine and created a trust for its maintenance.
The Musser Mansion opened as the Muscatine Art Center in 1965, and Laura’s portrait hangs in the Reception Room. The home, outfitted in the Georgian Revival style, features 12 rooms, as well as large central halls on the first and second floors. They’re filled with items from the permanent collection, from Mississippi River paintings to works by Georgia O’Keefe, Marc Chagall and a drawing Vincent van Gogh. Rooms also showcase glass collections and temporary gallery displays with works by local artists.
The Stanley Gallery was built as a separate stand-alone facility in 1976, and in 1983, a main entrance, called The Linkage, was created to link the gallery with the house museum.
The contemporary gallery and sculpture garden are named for donors C. Maxwell and Elizabeth Stanley, who also gave part of their art collection to the museum and to the University of Iowa museum that now bears the Stanley name, in recognition of the late Richard (Dick) and Mary Jo Stanley, who committed $10 million to the UI’s new museum building in 2017. The couple died later that year, within a month of each other. Hancher’s Stanley Cafe was named in their honor, and this past year, a sculpture was installed at the Muscatine Art Center in Mary Jo’s memory.
With the Stanley family legacy spanning Iowa City and Muscatine, Alexander said “it feels like we share the same DNA.”
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