TAMPA — Ivan Crawford greets the long line of people that snakes around the sidewalk to the Art of the Brick. He has worked for four years at Amalie Arena, cleaning carpets. But these days, he has found a new calling. He is a herder of crowds.
Crawford is the first employee to greet guests to the free exhibit of Lego sculptures enjoying a run in Tampa through Sept. 4. In his booming voice, he beckons the group to huddle close and repeat after him:
"Don't touch the art!"
It's an impossible job, asking people not to touch things that beckon to be touched. He deputizes the kids and commands them to repeat the rule to their parents at the top of their lungs.
"Don't touch the art!"
"Kids love it when I put them in charge of the parents," said Crawford, 48. "And honestly, the parents have been touching it more than the kids."
People just can't help themselves. A common toy that has been around since the 1930s has been turned magical by artist Nathan Sawaya.
The exhibit, which has traveled the world, has more than 100 sculptures, from a life-size T. Rex skeleton (80,020 bricks in all) to a recreation of the Mona Lisa. Sawaya's playful sculpture of a giant pencil balancing on its point and spelling FUN is a particular temptation.
"It's only hanging by a string and the middle will break," Crawford said. "We've had to put that back together many times."
With an average of 3,000 visitors a day since it opened in June, the exhibit last week hit the 75,000 mark. Though lines, especially on the weekends, often reach around the block, Crawford moves them in groups of 30 every two minutes and said he's never heard of anyone waiting more than 20 minutes to get in.
The exhibit is sponsored by the Vinik Family Foundation, led by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny. The foundation also sponsored another kid-friendly art exhibit last summer. The popular Beach Tampa ball pit drew 100,000 visitors to Amalie, plunging into an all-white abyss of more than 1.2 million plastic balls created by Snarkitecture, a New York design firm.
Crawford was there for that, too, with an equally taxing job.
"I'm the one who kept that carpet white."
This exhibit, he said, seems to be more than just a playground. It has turned a toy into high art. There is, however, some play involved.
The exhibit ends in the "Brick Yard," the last room in the building with several bins of Lego bricks and tables for kids and their parents to design their own masterpieces. The amateurs have made Mario Bros. and Pac-Man, and someone made a volcano with lava coming out. The works get put on display in the Brick Yard.
Despite his penchant for teasing guests, telling them to get off the phone or threatening to photo bomb all their selfies, Crawford said the crowds have been easygoing, with "no flareups at all, not one."
Just don't touch the art.
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.