Willis Reifsnyder, a Mount Desert Island High School graduate, works as a Lego master model builder at the LEGO Discovery Center in Yonkers, N.Y. ISLANDER PHOTO BY SARAH HINCKLEY

Making a living building LEGO

BAR HARBOR — Many children have a lot of ideas about what they want to be when they grow up. Not many would think of being a LEGO master model builder — but that may change after hearing Willis Reifsnyder’s story.

A former Summer Festival of the Arts camper, Reifsnyder, 27, was invited back to the camp this summer to speak to the current crop of young artists. Since September, he has been employed as a LEGO master model builder at the LEGOLAND Discovery Center in Yonkers, N.Y.

Reifsnyder was one of four candidates for the job. To qualify, he had to build three items, each with their own theme, in a set amount of time.

Two of the other people vying for the job worked for the company already. All three were from New York.

“For a small-town Maine boy to come in and grab that job was a stroke of luck for me,” Reifsnyder told the Islander.

He said he was four years old when his parents found a tub of LEGO at a summer yard sale.

“It was so hot that my brain interprets the whole day as being kind of yellow because of the heat,” he recalls. “They thought, if we get him this we won’t have to buy more, he’ll just keep making it into other things … little did they know!”

Mount Desert Elementary School had a LEGO program for students when Reifsnyder was a student there, but he didn’t participate.

“I just went home and built my stuff,” he said. “For me LEGO was a very personal thing.”

His favorite thing to build? Star Wars spaceships.

When he learned about an job opening at the discovery center, Reifsnyder sent an application and a link to a Flickr page where several of his creations were recorded. He received a call inviting him to compete for the position and began studying previous competitions to prepare.

“I realized, I can’t just go in there and make spaceships,” he said.

For the first round, the theme was an animal and he built a caterpillar. In round two, where future was the theme, Reifsnyder constructed a vertical farm building.

“I definitely had an inspiration of Minecraft in making it, very boxy with lines of vegetation,” he said.

In the final round, the competitors were told to build anything.

“I froze for a second,” Reifsnyder remembers. But then, inspired by the Criterion Theatre and the Higgins-Demas Theater at Mount Desert Island High School back in Bar Harbor, he decided he would build a stage.

“I will say the best is the lights … one of the people watching the competition noticed the lights.”

After graduating from MDI High School, Reifsnyder attended Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. He earned a degree in music education but was working as a Lego Robotics instructor at a school in that area.

“When I got my degree in music education it was kind of bittersweet,” he said. “In the public education system there is a lot breathing down your neck … I was having a hard time with that while wanting to work with kids.”

At the discovery center, it’s his job to build with Lego while visitors watch and interact with him.

“I can be myself while still having the ability to impart knowledge,” he said. “I like being in my own little Lego world.”

When asked if this was his first “real” job, Reifsnyder offered a qualifier.

“If that means that I have health benefits, then yes,” he said.

SFOA campers had lots of questions for Reifsnyder during his presentation. One wanted to know if his job was hazardous because he was walking on Lego all day. Another asked what the biggest thing he had built was. A model of the Brooklyn Bridge was his answer.

The bridge is on display at the discovery center. It stands about four feet tall with an 11-foot-long road.

When asked what advice he would give, Reifsnyder told the kids to use art to help people. He also hopes everyone can find a way to play at work.

“I’ve come to the realization that no one ever truly grows up,” he said. “It’s just how much you want to still be a kid.”

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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