When Tina Drennen went looking for a stress-reliever, she turned to a pile of colorful interlocking plastic bricks with little bumps on top of them.
“It’s kind of a strange story,” said Tina, of Belleville. “I’m fairly new; I’ve only been playing with it for two years. I needed something for my stress, and I loved how it made me feel so good. It’s very relaxing.”
“It” is LEGO, a simple construction toy that since 1949 has inspired great ardor among fans for its array of pieces, gears, minifigures and various other parts that can be used to build streetscapes, moving Ferris wheels, models of buildings — pretty much anything you can imagine.
Stores sell kits that are ready to assemble. More ardent builders gather their own pieces — online selling and swapping is huge — and use their own imagination and some serious right-brain skills to create.
Tina was setting up her own LEGO land in the Guild Center at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville. She belongs to the Gateway LEGO Users Group, an adult LEGO club in St. Louis. About two dozen members gathered there in mid-November to start the lengthy process of erecting individual LEGO creations, nearly all designed by the builders.
Plus, there is a life-size nativity built with LEGO pieces inside the visitors center and a maze outside the Guild Hall of giant LEGO blocks. The displays, part of the Way of Lights at the Shrine, which has a fee, is open to all ages. (See the included box for more information.)
One look at Tina’s work and it was evident she leaned toward the feminine side of LEGO building, with vibrant pastel colors and tiny people populating a village square teaming with activity, including a cute little girl selling hot dogs from a mobile stand.
“I have 1,000 sets now, but not all of them are built,” she said with a grin. “The house is quite cluttered, but my husband Daryl is very patient. He’s kind of into it now, too. He’s done some ‘Star Wars’ LEGO.”
There’s something for everybody’s LEGO taste inside the Guild Center: Rich Stehnach, of Belleville, is currently part of a conglomerate of space builders working on their version of an international Moon Base.
“Each member has a country and each built a module,” he said. “It’s new for me.” It was well under way that day with gantries, rockets and more.
But he’s not new at building with LEGO. Rich works for Centene Corp. in St. Louis and constructed a miniature version of the company’s headquarters in 2014; it was put on display in the lobby of the Clayton, Mo., building.
“It took about 100 hours and 30,000 pieces,” he said. Then he took it apart to be used for other creations. (LEGO purists do not believe in using glue.)
The club, which has been around since 2003 and has more than 50 members, draws “kindred spirits,” Rich believes. He’s one of its officers.
And while what you get looks a lot like adults playing with toys, the LEGO concept is a magnet for anybody with a brain for science, math, engineering and architecture.
A short conversation with club members at the Guild Center that afternoon confirmed it: Tina is an IT project manager for AT&T. Rich, 54, at Centene is an IT systems engineer.
“Everybody has a favorite or a bias,” Rich noted. “Being an engineer, building one is a lot more math-oriented and inspiring to me than one made from non-square brick.”
Network engineer Shawn Stengel, 38, of St. Louis, was putting back together sections of his enormous MOC (My Own Creation) that he called the Black Fortress. It had been partially dismantled to transport to the event.
He started building it three years ago. “My guesstimate is 25 to 30,000 pieces,” he said. Don’t miss the drawbridge that opens and closes, sword-bearing warriors on foot and horseback and, hard to miss, the roaring red dragon on top of the keep.
Engineer Mark Hartford, of St. Charles, Mo., likes rendering famous buildings in LEGO.
To make the downsized Willis Tower in Chicago that’s on display, which is a 1 to 300 scale, he used 10,400 smoke-gray bricks. It stands 5-foot-8-inches tall.
His replica of the Gateway Arch benefited from an equation he found on the Arch website. “Then I used Excel to figure it out,” he said of the computer spreadsheet program. Plus, “Google Earth is great because you can look down at things.”
Robin Michelle Krauth, 43, is a veteran who’d been a medic in the Army and had suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Working with LEGO 1-by-1-inch plates to render mosaic images on a flat surface has turned into her peaceful place to go.
“I got into it in 2011 when my husband bought me a Harry Potter castle (to build),” she said. “We found a club in Seattle where I was stationed.”
When they moved to Fairview Heights in 2014, she joined the St. Louis club. But, she turned to mosaics using very tiny LEGO pieces because “I am not good at building.”
Instead she takes photos and renders them down to pixels to see the design she will make using LEGO pieces. It took about 4,600 “1x1” plates (0.8 cm by 0.8 cm by 1 cm) for the base plate and image of Captain Hook (actor Colin O’Donahue) from the TV drama “Once Upon A Time.”
The hard part, she said, is waiting for online orders from as far away as Germany.
At the other end of the Guild Center, Mike Sita, of Oakville, Mo., was setting up his humorous vignettes. Each was set up like the stop-action of a funny play on words, using minifigures to juggle, stand on a beach and even raise pigs.
“I’m a jokester,” said the 32-year-old draftsman, who got into LEGO when his son said he wanted a set.
Before long, Mike was bitten by the LEGO bug. He joined the club two years ago.
“I fell into it. I got a bin of parts off Craigslist; it wasn’t a complete set. I just started building.”
Gateway LEGO Users Group
What: Club for adults 18 and older who are fans of LEGO
When: 1 to 4 p.m. the second Saturday of the month
Where: Grants View Library, 9700 Musick Ave, St. Louis, off Gravois near Grants Farm
Information: facebook.com/gtwlug, firstname.lastname@example.org or gtwlug.org
LEGO Way of Lights display
What: See a wide variety of LEGO creations by metro-east and St. Louis members of the Gateway LEGO Users Group. Plus, an outdoor maze constructed by giant LEGO blocks.
When: 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 31. Closed Christmas Eve and Christmas day.
Where: Guild Center on the grounds (across from the church) of the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows on Illinois 15 in Belleville. The display is part of the annual Way of Lights.
Cost: The Shrine charges $7 adults; $5, children. Family night on Tuesday reduces the fee by $1.