Durango’s guerilla artist
Sam Bridgham’s work exists at the intersection of art and engineering. His cheery, primary-color Lego sculptures cling onto the sides of bridges and sign posts in Durango, enhancing but not interfering with the standing framework. “It draws your attention to the infrastructure in a way you had not considered before,” said Bridgham, a mischievous fellow who considers himself more a vandal or anarchist than a public artist.
This process has been dubbed “Lego bombing,” a term inspired by a similar fad known as “yarn bombing” (where knitters leave colorful yarn draped artistically around trees, benches or signposts in public spaces). Bridgham’s sculptures are of varying size, usually not much bigger than a basketball. They all consist of vibrant Lego pieces (the cheap kind you played with as a kid), snapped together to form the shapes of giant bugs, simple squares or wrap-around adornment for boring poles. The structures aren’t functional, but you can take them apart, put them back together or simply take a picture for Instagram. No permission has been given to leave Legos around town, but no one ever told Bridgham to stop, either. He builds everything with the anticipation of curious townsfolk modifying it. “Yet you also want to inspire them to NOT wreck it,” he said. “The cooler it is, the less you want to wreck it.”
Bridgham has been teaching Lego robotics and engineering classes at places like the Durango Rec Center for six years. He makes no money from the erratic Lego “bombing” (his term), but suspects his fans admire the defiance involved in putting up weird art where it doesn’t belong. His next proposed community project is one to memorialize Captain Kuss, the Blue Angels pilot from Durango who died in a plane crash this June. “I’d like to go bomb something, encrust it with blue, gold and red Legos in some fashion,” Bridgham said. “Anyone can come and put Legos on, following a pattern. Or they can just come put them in one place, and I’ll work them into a pattern.”
One of Bridgham’s oldest creations sits outside Bread bakery on County Road 250: Wrapped around a wooden pole, the bright sculpture is built with rotating gears, moving smoothly in opposing directions without hitting one another. An older woman paused to spin the wheels one afternoon at Bread, smiling as she played. So it’s not just kids who like this stuff. People might enjoy the arbitrariness of Bridgham’s work, never knowing when they’ll see a childish piece pop out from the woodwork. We spoke with Bridgham about how his Legos force people to see the overlooked, empty visual spaces of our world, and why he’s not mad when people take them down.
What do you hope this Lego art does for people? Delight is the objective. And it’s just an act of vandalism, really. I’m an anarchist in my heart, as every good American should be. There’s been so much of our space that’s been appropriated – not for nefarious reasons, you’ve gotta have something to hold the buildings up – but the way we approach those things is generally through engineering, with aesthetics as a side-concern or no concern. You can’t make 5,000 really beautiful stop sign posts. We’ve grown habituated to that stuff around us, like those gray power boxes on the intersections, they’re everywhere. There’s a term I love to use for a lot of reasons: “Lacuna.” It refers to an empty space, the thing we all agree to not think about so we can get along. Say you’re a guy walking down the street and there’s a beautiful girl dressed in a way that will elicit a response. What do you do? Eyes forward. Or if a kid farts in my class, I don’t go, ‘Hey!’ Socially, certain things don’t exist.
So you consider what you do vandalism, not public art? The difference is, I’m appropriating space without permission. They do get taken down, like the ones I’ve put on bridges or lamp posts along the river trail don’t survive very long. I think there’s some dude in the cleanup crew who’s offended by it, and wants them down. I have no idea what happens to these things after I leave. That’s part of the art; I’ve abandoned them. That’s what allows me to leave such things of intricate beauty that I put so much time in behind me and not fret. It’s rough justice, because I didn’t ask permission to put my stuff there. So, does anyone need permission to take it down?
Do you get attached to the sculptures?I try not to. That’s the art that I’m practicing; how much beauty and effort and attention can I put into something and then just walk away? The lifespans of the things I leave behind are a function of how well I can do that. I notice the things I care about the most have the shortest lifespans, for some reason.
What’s the oldest piece still standing? I move them around sometimes and redo them, so it’s hard to say. But this one’s been here since May [at Bread].
You also teach kids Lego robotics. I’m a huge fan of Buzz Aldrin and the whole space program. I was thinking about the moon launches, Apollo 11. I was 3½ years old when they landed on the moon, and I remember that very distinctly, not because of the wonder of it, but because my response was like, ‘Yeah, so?’ It seemed utterly probable and likely. Why shouldn’t a man walk on the moon? I’ve been doing that in my head for years. That’s a sort of uneducated, a priori sensibility, an unschooled aesthetic. There’s something pure and pristine about that experience, and it all has to do with delight. When you go into that state of what I call “deep play ...” It’s like going to a movie and forgetting that you’re in the movies. Or being so completely in the zone, you don’t know who’s around you. It’s extremely challenging for an adult to get back there.
Is that why you use Legos, a child-like material?I use Lego because it’s a universal medium. Every engineer my age and younger all over the planet has a stash of Legos. Lego has penetrated every market, and they’re so durable, attractive and transferable.
Did you have any artistic background?I’m sort of the black sheep of an artist and engineering family. I could never really get my act together to do either. On my father’s side, they’re all engineers: chemical, electrical, civil. On my mother’s side, they tend to be teachers. And my mother and sister are artists. My professional background is teaching. I graduated, had no idea what to do with myself, and you could get $45 a day being a sub if you didn’t have a criminal record. This was in ’92; $45 a day got you a shit ton of ramen.
What other professions allow people to be in “deep play”? If any? If you have a really good programmer, you get the best out of him when you just let him do what he does. If it’s a smart boss, they’ll find those people and treasure and pamper them, to get that out of them. If you want really good eggs, you gotta let the chickens be chickens and not put them in little boxes with a timer and an artificial light. Maybe you don’t always get the same size eggs or they don’t lay an egg that day. But when they do, you get the good ones.
What can adults do to get into deep play? In order for you to write well, you have to discard the outside editor. And tell your internal editor to pipe down long enough for you to just get it out there. Right? The best way to handle an assignment is to forget about it.
A lot of adults have no creative outlet in their personal lives. I actually don’t enjoy doing this as much as you’d think. A lot of it is pure frustration, and wondering if I’m going nowhere with this stupid idea. And being concerned about money.
Are the Legos expensive?I get them for free. People give them to me. I have over 300 pounds of them. If you bought these pieces individually, that’s like $70 worth of Lego [the Bread sculpture]. I’m recycling not just the pieces, but the good intent. It’s a good thing to do, to donate Legos so that other children can use them.
What kind of feedback do you get for doing this?Universally positive. I have people calling and telling me I’m their hero, ‘We’re so grateful you’re doing it.’ There’s gratitude and relief. People come to me like, ‘I love seeing your things, it’s a total lift to my day.’ And that has everything to do with the fact that I just throw them up without asking, seemingly at random. People love the fact that I’m not asking. The old codgers really love that. It’s like the comedian saying the thing no one can say. And that’s what an artist or writer does; you say what other people are thinking, and throw in your two cents, too. When you drive around these sort of lacunae, these spaces that are purposefully nothing because all they are is engineering, and you’re not supposed to notice the infrastructure ... Who cares about those configurations of power lines? All you care about is that the lights go on. You stop noticing. But this huge amount of space and resource is taken up by pure engineering, with no aesthetic concern at all.
You build on top of what’s already there. You’re not changing the structure. I use infrastructure as my canvas. But it’s not meant to just hang there in space and you not see the thing. It draws your attention to the infrastructure in a way that you had not considered before. I think the two places in your brain, the creative and the structural, if there ARE two places ... I think it’s one. Because we’re human beings, we like to dichotomize. We’re a binary species. The transgender people are challenging that, which I think is great. Left brain, right brain, it’s a bullshit dichotomy. We had a knob-turner black and white TV, where I watched the moon landings, and if you turned the knob just so carefully, you’d get stuck between stations. And the screen would just go gray and black. I loved that idea. That is a hidden door. There’s something in there, it’s just that no one can define it.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.