Brian Korte created this Lego portrait to memorialize Prince William County teens Brittany and Connor Kirk, who were slain in 2009. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
The bright faces of a boy and a girl smile from the framed portrait on a westward-facing wall inside the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen. The portrait is made entirely of Legos, those tiny plastic blocks that instantly call up memories of childhood and fun. Some of the Legos belonged to Connor, who, along with his sister Brittany, were killed in a brutal shooting in their Prince William County home in 2009. Their short lives were snuffed out when they were just 13 and 14 years old.
"When something like that happens, it stops your whole world," says Brian Korte, brick artist and owner of Brickworkz. Korte's Richmond company creates custom mosaics from Legos, and, a year after meeting the children and their father, Kevin Kirk, Korte received a package in the mail sharing the tragic news of the children's deaths, along with prayer cards and Connor's Legos. Korte was shaken, but full of compassion.
"Understandably, it was too difficult for Kevin to have his son's Lego collection around the house," reads a plaque next to the colorful Lego portrait of Connor and Brittany. "So he entrusted the Lego parts to my care. I told him I'd find a good use for the parts and would find a way to honor his children."
The resulting artwork was a portrait of the children, smiling and happy, comprising 13,600 Lego pieces — including ones from Connor's collection — in 11 different colors. Korte gave the piece to Kirk, who was caught in a tight grip of grief.
"He was blown away," Korte says of Kirk's reaction. Korte's Lego artwork show opened in the Gumenick Family Gallery at the Cultural Arts Center in January, including Brittany and Connor's portrait. Feb. 12 and 13 marked the seventh anniversary of the children's deaths; Korte says it was the first time their father wasn't thrown into a tornado of horror, grief and pain. Instead, Korte's portrait helped him celebrate their lives. "He was sharing it on Facebook, just so happy that some good could come out of this horrible situation," Korte says.
Brittany and Connor's Lego portrait is part of a series of pieces Korte has created in the memory of children who have passed away. "Noah's Ark," which visually represents the biblical story of Noah and his ark full of pairs of every animal on earth, was created in memory of Steven Noah Alexander, who died of a congenital heart defect when he was just 10 months old. "It was intended to be a colorful and cheerful Lego mosaic that depicts the story of Noah's Ark in a fun and educational way while also respecting the memory of Steven Noah in a special way," Korte writes on the Brickworkz Facebook page. Another portrait on the memorial wall is of Jonathan Duttweiler, whose friendly nature emanates from the piece.
A Lego mosaic portrait of Jonathan Duttweiler, who passed away at age 22. (Mosaic by Brian Korte; photo by Samantha Willis)
Duttweiler's mother, Brenda, wrote Korte to express her gratitude for the special way he memorialized her son. Korte reflects on her message often: "We had no idea what to expect and [the portrait] was just spectacular. I could have stared at it all day. One of a parent's greatest fears on losing a child is that the child won't be remembered." Because of Korte's unique memorial, Jonathan will never be forgotten.
"I use my creative spirit to capture their memory," Korte explains. "[The portraits] are meant to be fun, but there's also an element of bringing people together through the memorial wall." Korte volunteers with Comfort Zone Camp, a refuge and counseling center for youth who have lost loved ones. "You basically shadow the kids. You're there if they need you, you give them space if they don't." His work with the memorial portraits helps inform his art, teaching him helpful ways to communicate with families who are grieving.
Korte's work extends beyond the grief-soothing portraits. In fact, his very first commissioned piece is the visual opposite of sadness. "The Perfect Smile" was created for Korte's dentist's office.
"A Perfect Smile." (Lego mosaic by Brian Korte; photo by Samantha Willis)
In a twist stranger than fiction, it was Korte's dentist, Dr. Michael McMunn, who introduced Korte to his future wife, McMunn's daughter Molly. After showing her an article on Korte's Lego designs, McMunn suggested the two get coffee. The rest is history.
Korte created this Lego portrait of himself and his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Molly. (Lego mosaic by Brian Korte; photo by Samantha Willis)
With a range of subjects from beloved bot WALL-E to adorable babies to jade Buddhas, Korte's Lego portraits all have one thing in common: vibrancy and a true-to-life depiction of the people and places that Korte holds dear. Like Richmond. The mosaic titled "Richmond: River City" captures the essence of RVA, with images of Arthur Ashe and historical monuments in the foreground and the river in the background, buttressed by the Richmond skyline. Made using three panels, the mosaic contains 41,490 Legos in five colors.
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"Richmond: River City" depicts the river city and historical figures through five different colors of Legos — 41,490 of them! (Lego mosaic by Brian Korte; photo by Samantha Willis)
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"Baby Mia." (Lego mosaic by Brian Korte; photo by Samantha Willis)
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Korte's company's logo in a hand-designed Lego mosaic. (Lego mosaic by Brian Korte; photo by Samantha Willis)
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Korte's passion for Legos drives his creativity. (Lego mosaic by Brian Korte; photo by Samantha Willis)
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Lego mosaic by Brian Korte; photo by Samantha Willis
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"Pooch." (Lego mosaic by Brian Korte; photo by Samantha Willis)
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Lego mosaic by Brian Korte; photo by Samantha Willis
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"WALL-E." (Lego mosaic by Brian Korte; photo by Samantha Willis)
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Brick artist Brian Korte poses with "Noah's Ark," a Lego mosaic he created in memory of a 10-month-old who passed away of a heart condition. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
Korte's passion for Legos and his love of meticulous art — stippling, needlepoint, mosaics — drove him to start creating the portraits a decade ago. "It all started on a card table in my apartment," he says with a laugh. His show's opening at the Cultural Arts Center marked 10 years to the day from his first Lego mosaic, a portrait he made for friends.
Far removed from his years of IT and web design work, Korte now devotes his time to his family and his art. He encourages young artists to persue their dreams, no matter how out of the ordinary they may seem.
"Know that there are unconventional professions, like mine. My worst day at work is what someone else wishes their best could be like. I get to play with Legos all the time!"