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Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
LEGO builder Gary McIntire used about 50,000 blocks to create a solar system for a house's ceiling at the Utah County Parade of Homes. He competes Tuesday in the National Model Builder Search, sponsored by LEGOLAND.

HIGHLAND — When he was 4 years old, Gary McIntire jumped into the world of "mini-figs," "lugs," "snot" and plastic bricks — and he never left.

If you are into LEGO blocks, you know about such things: small-scale figures, LEGO User Groups and Studs-Not-On-Top building. If you are not, take a look at McIntire's world.

It's a world of creativity and imagination. Now 25, McIntire has graduated to the status of AFOL — Adult Fans of LEGOS — but he's been enjoying the small building blocks ever since his dad brought home a bucket of them. "I see myself as an artist," he said. "LEGO blocks are my art form."

He will be taking his art to another level as one of 24 finalists in the National Model Builder Search, sponsored by LEGOLAND. The winner of that competition gets to join the LEGO design team, a dream job, if ever there was one, said McIntire.

He earned a spot at the finals at a competition in Phoenix where he had an hour to build a model with a pirate theme.

McIntire built a parrot, in part because it is not easy to use square blocks to create round forms.

At the finals, which will be held in Carlsbad, Calif., on Tuesday, he will be given a theme and then have two hours to complete his project. It will be challenging, he said, because in a timed-build, you don't have a lot of time to plan, and planning is a key part of any project.

Take his most recent installation. McIntire did a LEGO room for a house in the Utah Valley Parade of Homes. His showpiece is a solar system on the ceiling, using between 40,000 and 50,000 blocks. (The Parade runs from noon-9 p.m. through today in Highland.)

It took more than 200 hours to build and four months to plan. "I don't consider myself the best builder in the world — not by a long shot. But I've never seen anything else done on a ceiling."

McIntire grew up in Southern California. He remembers that all the kids in the neighborhood came to play in his basement. "I had a whole city, and we'd spend hours there. I'd love those kids to see how my LEGO building turned out."

He was also involved with clubs and groups in Seattle when his family moved there. He doesn't know of any clubs in Utah, but everybody connects online now, anyway. "There are thousands of us AFOLS all over the world," he said. A couple of big conventions are held each year.

Over the course of his "building" career, McIntire's worked on everything from miniature houses to 10-foot palm trees, from small graveyards to life-size Nativity sets. "The scale and range is amazing," and part of what keeps him building.

"The beauty of it is that you can create anything you can imagine."

McIntire figures he has about a million pieces in his collection, and if you consider that the average LEGO piece costs 10 cents, that means a sizable investment. But, he said, "it's cheaper than building motorcycles or sports cars. It's just a fun hobby."

His hobby has carried over into his work; McIntire is in construction management and has also worked as a carpenter.

And, although he is continuously adding pieces to his collection, part of the fun is taking things apart and building something new. When he talks to kids about LEGO blocks, as he frequently does, "I tell them don't just build a model and put it on your shelf. Take it apart. It doesn't become fun until you start using your imagination. Otherwise, it's just another model kit."

The real fun is the creativity, he said. "Why do musicians keep playing? Why do painters paint? The joy of it is taking something you create in your mind that you can bring to life. It's very satisfying to hold that finished product in your hand. It's pretty exciting when your imagination comes to life."

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