Famous Lego exhibition coming to Tampa for a free show courtesy of the Viniks

Los Angeles-based artist Nathan Sawaya’s sculpture Yellow is one of his creations featured in the “The Art of the Brick” exhibition. The imaginative show has been drawing large crowds worldwide since 2007.
Los Angeles-based artist Nathan Sawaya’s sculpture Yellow is one of his creations featured in the “The Art of the Brick” exhibition. The imaginative show has been drawing large crowds worldwide since 2007.
Published May 22, 2017

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, have a fondness for modern, whimsical art. And Vinik and his partners have laid out plans to transform Tampa's Channelside area into a dynamic urban center full of parks, public art and amenities.

A famous Lego art exhibition coming to downtown Tampa this summer will snap those two sides of the Viniks together.

The Vinik Family Foundation is announcing today that it will sponsor a free, family-friendly art installation from June 23 to Sept. 4 called "The Art of the Brick." It's a touring exhibition of imaginative Lego creations by Nathan Sawaya that has been drawing huge crowds around the world since 2007.

In an interview at the couple's art-filled home in South Tampa, the Viniks said it's the kind of public art experience they plan to seek more of as the Channelside area is remade. It's not just for fun, they said, it's good for business.

This is not the first time the Viniks brought their love of modern art to the public.

Last summer, it was a million white balls in a play area called The Beach Tampa that the family foundation paid to bring for a free run at Amalie Arena. An instant hit, the installation drew more than 100,000 people.

Penny Vinik pushed for The Beach from New York design firm Snarkitecture after she saw it in a Washington museum. Part art installation, part science lesson, the balls turned something associated with children's play into something much larger.

The same can be said for Sawaya's Lego sculptures that have drawn raves for the ingenious way he transforms ordinary Lego bricks. He has created replicas of famous works of art such as Girl with a Pearl Earring, the ancient Greek statue of Venus de Milo or Rodin's The Thinker. There's also a life-size T-Rex skeleton and Sawaya's famous Yellow, a sculpture of a man ripping his chest open with thousands of yellow Lego bricks cascading from the cavity.

The Los Angeles-based artist said he is excited to bring his exhibition to Tampa for the first time because of the response he gets when a familiar toy is turned into something complex.

"By creating these sculptures out of Lego bricks, it allows people to connect with the artwork on a more immediate level," Sawaya wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

More than 100 of Sawaya's sculptures are in the show that was ranked in CNN's top 10 list of global must-see exhibitions.

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Public art for Channelside

The exhibit will be set up in a Channelside area warehouse that used to be the District 3 nightclub at 802 E Whiting St. With more than 18,000 square feet of space, it will be roomy enough that organizers are not requiring visitors to obtain tickets, like they did with The Beach Tampa.

At the end of the exhibit, there will be a Lego play area and visitors will be invited to leave a creation of their own on one of the shelves to be uploaded on social media at #artofthebricktampa.

The exhibit will arrive just as dirt starts turning on the redevelopment plan devised by Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment, which formed the development company Strategic Property Partners. The development will have a strong public art component for what he envisions is a walkable urban experience, Vinik said.

"We want a vibrant downtown urban district with artwork, parks, green space, dog parks and all these different amenities to give you a great street-level experience," he said.

Penny Vinik points to the sculpture nicknamed the Bean that's the centerpiece of Chicago's Millennium Park as a good inspiration for Channelside's redevelopment.

"That transformed that park, and it's a huge draw for locals and tourists alike," she said. "That is a perfect illustration."

The joy of owning art

The Lego creations are the kind of art that fits right in with the Viniks' personal taste.

In an interview at the couple's chic home in Tampa's Palma Ceia neighborhood, many whimsical pieces are on display that they have collected over the years. Few are from famous artists.

"I don't really consider ourselves collectors," Penny Vinik said. "We love art and we have art in our homes and live with art. But we don't go to Sotheby's or Christie's or anything like that."

Their front entry of black and white marble and creamy white walls has large colorful pop art paintings, including High Sign by Boston artist Robert Deyber, known for paintings that put a clever visual spin on a common phrase. This one has street signs arranged in a stylized way under a dark sky. Down the hall is another Deyber painting with an oversized No. 2 writing instrument called Pencil Pusher.

Penny Vinik's favorite is the sardonic Frog Prince by another Boston artist, Seth Minkin. The big fat frog has a crooked smile to match his crooked crown, and the large painting looms over the desk in her office. Just outside the office is a white canvas by Jane Waterous that is sprinkled with jewel-toned dots that turn into three-dimensional figures of people at play.

"My kids and I fell in love with her work when they saw her studio in the Bahamas," she says, smiling at the memory.

A friend of Penny Vinik's knew of her interest in putting on art shows, and the Lego exhibition "fell into our lap" because of a last-minute cancellation. It's the kind of fun exhibit the art history major hopes can inspire a deeper love of art.

Jeff Vinik admits Penny has to drag him to museums. He says he looks at art for the joy it brings, not for its investment value.

"It's more about appreciating art," he said, "than art appreciating in value."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.