This article was originally published in the November 2017 Princeton Echo.
British artist Andre Veloux began creating art with Lego bricks about five years ago as a stay-at-home dad. He found the small, interlocking plastic building pieces gave him a way to express his commitment to women’s issues, and a growing success as an artist.
“Making a living through art is always going to be a struggle, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything,” says the Princeton resident of his second professional career.
Approachable and genial, Veloux can be found most Sunday afternoons in the Princeton Public Library, where he is the artist-in-residence. The current exhibition, the eye-catching “The Mask of Feminity: Feminist Portraits,” can be seen on the second floor until January 5, in association with the Arts Council of Princeton.
In the installation, portraits of feminist icons show powerful women who are effective agents of change in society, including actress Jane Fonda, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, singer Lady Gaga, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. All the portraits are made with commercially available Lego bricks.
The Arts Council deemed Veloux’s work a good match for the library. The opportunity to curate art for library patrons “allows us to bring professional artists to those who might not otherwise have an opportunity to experience contemporary fine art,” says Taneshia Nash Laird, arts council executive director. “Incorporating more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) into many aspects of our work as a community arts organization has also been a theme for us,” she adds, referring to Veloux’s technical background.
Veloux grew up in Great Britain where his father was a quantity surveyor (evaluating building sites), and his mother went to work in an office setting when his father had to stay home through an illness. Veloux, who played with Legos as a child like any other child, earned a math degree at Sheffield University and was a computer programmer and web designer in his first career.
His wife’s work in finance for a large pharmaceutical company took them to Paris and then to the Princeton area in 2010. The couple decided together that it worked best for the family for Veloux to stay home when their daughter was born in 2002.
When his daughter was in middle school, Veloux somewhat easily made the transition from mathematician to artist because his Lego-based art is grounded in both precision and artistry, and he is familiar with pixilation and digital art techniques.
His process starts with a photograph, but it has to be one in which the shading is just right because of the very specific Lego color palette. In fact the Lego color palette is always with him, attached to a small notebook.
First he looks at the subject’s eyes. “The eye draws you in, it makes contact with the viewer, it needs to inspire,” he says. The photograph becomes pixilated in Veloux’s computer so that he can eventually position the Legos on a commercial Lego base plate that is his canvas.
“The photo itself is a bit like a sketch,” he says. “You want to enhance it in a way that looks real, and doesn’t look comical.”
Veloux has called his raw materials both “limiting” and also “limitless” because the toy brick colors and sizes are fixed, but they offer so many textural possibilities. “I am always experimenting with techniques and ideas,” he says. “It doesn’t happen overnight. The whole process has become somewhat intuitive.”
It took several years to develop, in a complicated process, the art that is close to what he is doing today. He started with a mosaic of a green MINI Cooper from an ad photograph. He then made a very appetizing raw steak from Legos. In 2013 he saw his first exhibited piece, in the Princeton Small World Coffee’s The Love Show: a flat strawberry. Proceeds from the first strawberry went to Send Hunger Packing in Princeton, and from a later strawberry, to Womanspace, a Lawrenceville non-profit that aids victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
The feminist icon series shown in the library began with a Jane Fonda photograph that “just worked well.” That she was admired by Veloux didn’t hurt. He also has a series of composite portraits created from blending features of different faces to create a single visual. These portraits comment on the constant demands made on women on presenting themselves. “A woman, when she presents herself, has made decisions on her face, her hair, her eyes, to gain acceptance,” he comments. He considers these portraits, some of which are in the library, “quite powerful.”
He purchases Legos from its official store, and a trusted, high quality online marketplace so that the colors are consistent and not variated. Used Legos on eBay may be economical, but Veloux finds the colors change over time. Each work of art uses about 3,000 to 5,000 pieces, and those with three-dimensional sloping uses more.
It makes for a vibrant work space. The room in his house dedicated to his work is colorful, according to his photos, with trays and trays to sort pieces and colors. One piece of art takes several months to complete, not including design time. A work depicting his daughter’s portrait took a year.
Veloux is represented by Krause Gallery located in New York’s the Lower East Side. While he was reluctant to pitch a gallery cold, he noted that an artist whose work seemed compatible with his was connected with Krause Gallery. “I went in with a piece,” he says. “The owner was not overwhelmingly positive but he had a conversation. That was big,” recalls Veloux.
He was already doing feminist portraits but was looking to expand and strengthen the message. Veloux decided that steaks and strawberries were not his future, and as a committed feminist, did a series on the clothes worn by females — skirts and jean shorts, for example. The gallery sold one.
“Women are judged on what they wear,” he explains. “Every reaction is a comment on how society treats women. If there is a conversation about what women are wearing, that conversation is in the work.” He made awareness of women’s issue a theme in his work. “When you are an artist, you ask, ‘What is the point, why am I doing this?’ You want to say something.”
The gallery owner engaged in more conversation, and sold more pieces. Veloux was stunned, sitting at a subway station not long ago, to see a long e-mail outlining a proposed representation. Shortly after that, another artist cancelled a show and he was asked to fill in, completing five pieces in three months, selling half from the show, which pleased him.
The Affordable Art Fair in New York group show sold all Veloux’s contributions to its 2017 show and he will exhibit in 2018. He has had pieces at a friend’s gallery in Fort Worth, Texas, as well as in shows and galleries in Asbury Park, and Monmouth, NJ, Miami Beach, Washington DC, and other venues, including Art All Night in Trenton. A solo show at Krause is scheduled for June, 2018.
The feminist icons in Princeton Public Library are not on sale at this time, because his dream is to present them in other public spaces like the library. Normally, the price of the pieces range, for a small work, from $1,200 to $4,000.
Now Veloux says he has been able to let go of a “bit of angst” in spending money on materials before the sale, as he gains confidence as an artist. He couldn’t be happier with his current situation. A public space like the library, he says, is perfect for getting the message out. “I’m getting out there, not too quickly. I am fulfilled and busy. It is just right.”