May 23, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Clash of the Lego masters

CARLSBAD, Calif.--It's about 8:30 in the morning Monday and Sarah Hall is deep into something many Lego fans would consider a fantasy.

The 23-year-old insurance claim processor from Louisville, Ky., is one of 23 finalists for a job as a master model builder at Legoland California here. Each has been given an hour to grab as many Lego bricks as they want from dozens of clear-plastic bins containing a particular size and shape of brick.

Legoland competition

And while anyone who visits Legoland can choose bricks from these bins, the public has to pay for them. The finalists get to just grab them, fill their bins and walk away.

On Tuesday, the finalists will go head-to-head in a two-hour "build-off" in which each will be tasked with building a model based on something he or she thinks would fit in well at this theme park north of San Diego. And they'll get to use the bricks they've grabbed from the bins.

"It's pretty fun and it's kind of nerve-wracking (picking bricks from the bins) because you don't know everything you need, but the colors are pretty awesome," said Hall. "I've never had all these. I've just had the basics. So it's nice...It's like a candy shop."

Ultimately, just one candidate will nab the master-builder spot, an honor that will require moving close enough to Carlsbad to be able to work full-time at the theme park creating the models that make up the scenery. Though Hall is working at an insurance company in Louisville, she thinks of herself as an artist and spends much of her free time writing "whimsical" stories about people and then illustrating them herself.

Also among the artistic pursuits she takes seriously is building with Lego, which she says she's been doing since age 6.

"My favorite (model) was a tree house," she recalled. "It wasn't very big because I didn't have a lot of Legos. You have to imagine a lot."

"You can create anything you can imagine. It's an incredible artistic medium."
--Gary McIntire, candidate for master model builder

But playing with Legos is mostly an indoor pastime, and Hall takes her time outside at least as seriously as her art. So, she said, she regularly goes for bike rides and hikes, and her favorite activity of all may be kick ball.

One Lego fan twice as old as Hall and much further along in his career, yet an equal at the competition here, is Arthur Gugick, a 46-year-old high school math teacher from Cleveland.

Gugick said he teaches whatever math classes are thrown his way, including classes for those with very poorly developed skills. For kids in those classes, he said, he resorts to trying to make math fun through real-world demonstrations.

Thus, he explained that he often trots out a Rubik's Cube and seeks to impress his students by solving the toy behind his back. Of course, he said, he only does the final step of the iconic puzzle blind. But the stories his students tell change vastly over the school year, he said.

"'He did it all behind his back in less than a minute,'" he said his students claim when they tell the story.

Gugick, born and raised in New York City, estimates he owns a quarter million Lego bricks and once built a model of the Taj Mahal out of 15,000 of them.

And while he appreciates the talent of the current and former Legoland master model builders, he wondered how many of the awe-inspiring creations--dragons, realistic-looking cityscapes, elephants, bridges and the like--are a function of available tools more than pure ability.

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