Revisiting the LEGO Artist: A Times Square Exhibit

Two years ago, No Joe Schmo featured Nathan Sawaya, a lawyer-turned-LEGO artist who builds life-size sculptures with up to 25,000 LEGO bricks featured at corporate events and museums around the world.

This summer in New York City, Sawaya is the subject of the Discovery Times Square exhibit The Art of the Brick. The exhibit features a slew of Sawaya’s work, from LEGO recreations of famous artwork like the Mona Lisa, Starry Night, and Michelangelo’s David to a Tyrannosaurus Rex (very Night at the Museum-esque) to NYC-specific creations like the Statue of Liberty. Take a look below:

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One of my favorite parts of the exhibit, though, came at the very end. Everyone at the exhibit was encouraged to grab a brick, write  their name on it, and add it to a crowdsourced LEGO creation.

crowdsourced legos

The Art of the Brick runs through January 2014. Adult tickets cost $23.50.

NEXT: Think LEGO building is cool? Here are 10 awesome jobs you wanted as a kid

If you have an idea for a great No Joe Schmo, please submit it on the Suggest a No Joe Schmo page.

The American Idol Coach

Orland is
When Michael Orland’s mother took him to see a piano teacher at age 4, the teacher said “too young.” But then Michael played for her — and she agreed to take him on.

When Michael Orland sits down on the piano bench with American Idol contestants – those who made it through the initial cut, that is – he gives them a reassuring nod. “This is the only place you’re not being judged,” he tells them.

Orland has worked as a piano coach and vocal arranger on American Idol since season one in 2002. Hundreds upon hundreds of faces have passed through his door and grown into lifelong friends.

Orland sat with Adam Lambert at the piano, transforming “If I Can’t Have You” into a heart-wrenching ballad (which even Simon loved). He moved in with Clay Aiken and Kimberley Locke for a few months. He comforted Lauren Alaina when he found her crying in a hallway before a performance.

Perhaps because of his role on the show – as more of a cheerleader than a tough critic – Orland forms close bonds with the contestants that remain long after the end of a season. “Each new season of Idol is like watching your favorite season of Friends,” Orland says. “But you get a whole new set of characters.”

Age: 51
Graduated from: University of Massachusetts; majored in accounting
Based in: Los Angeles, Calif.
Previous jobs: After dropping out of school, I moved to New York, where I worked in every piano bar. Then I moved to Los Angeles, where I played [piano] for a bunch of people.

Your “big break”: In L.A., I played piano for Barry Manilow. Then, one of his background singers ended up being on the music team of the first season of Idol, and brought me in. So indirectly, Barry Manilow changed my life.

Do you experience firsthand the hilarity that ensues at American Idol auditions? Starting with season 4, I started going on the road for auditions. I’m one of the preliminary weed-er out-ers, before the judges sift through.

After auditions, what do your everyday responsibilities entail? Once the show starts, I’m one of the piano coaches and vocal arrangers – I deal with the kids on a daily basis. We don’t have time to give them voice lessons, but we coach them in performance techniques and build their confidence. About 90% of these contestants have had no experience beyond singing in a church or a karaoke bar.

Orland with Phillip Phillips,
Orland (L) with Phillip Phillips, the winner of season 11. “Starting a new season is like starting school all over again,” Orland says.

And you’re with them through the bitter end – which, more often than not, includes getting voted off. Yes. After people get voted off, they often go on The Ellen Show and Access Hollywood, and I go with them to play piano. So I’ve been on The Ellen Show, like, 70 times.

Was a career in music always in the cards for you? You went to school for accounting. I started playing the music from Mary Poppins by ear when I was 4. My parents talked me into [majoring in accounting], but my heart wasn’t in it. I dropped out after two years, because I only wanted to do music. I was playing music in this theater group in college, and I was like, “Why am I school? I can make $40 a night.”

Best part of your job: Just to be a tiny little piece of the contestants’ transitions. The relationship between a pianist and a singer is as intimate as you can get. It’s so rewarding to watch them grow into overnight sensations.

They grow insanely devoted fan bases incredibly quickly. The first time you go into a big set with all the contestants, it’s so crazy to watch the crowd’s reactions – people screaming their names, holding posters with their names.

Most challenging part of your job: To watch a contestant fold under pressure after he or she has been great all week. Another thing that can be hard: we’re not allowed to tell contestants which songs to sing. We can show them several reasons why they might want to choose one [song] over another, but we can’t say, pick this or don’t pick that. We help them create great arrangements or change up songs.

You deal with such a wide range of personalities. What approaches to coaching have you found work particularly well? I’m the class clown; I joke around with everyone, especially because they’re under such stress. I say “what the frick” a lot, since I have to be careful about swearing around young contestants.

Your advice to contestants: Walk out on stage with all the confidence in the world. Sometimes, the judges already have their minds set – so you can walk out doomed.

Pro- or anti-Simon? I love Simon, and I think he’s a very talented man. As mean and biting as Simon was on camera, he’d tell people off-camera, “This is what I meant. You have to careful on this song.”

Above, with Harry Connick, Jr.
Some of Orland’s fondest memories include those spent with the mentors who appear on Idol, like Gwen Stefani and Dolly Parton. Above: Orland (L) with Harry Connick, Jr.

Who do you think really deserved to make it, but didn’t? I’ll never forget when Chris Daughtry or Jennifer Hudson got voted off; I was so devastated. But it’s only a TV show. You can be on the show for two weeks and get enough exposure to make your career and do Broadway shows.

A quality you see in all the winners: It’s the ones you see in the hallway after rehearsal, listening on their iPhones to the tracks we just made them – as opposed to the ones on their iPhones chatting away.

Your dream judge: Cher. That way, I could have dinner with her.

If you could choose two contestants to be your roommates: After season 3, I bought this house out in L.A, and it fell through – it’s a long story involving mold – but I had already sold my old house. I was freaking out. Clay Aiken and Kimberley Locke had a house together at the time, and they invited me to come live in their huge 5-bedroom house. So my dog and I lived with them for, like, 4 months. It was like camp.

When has a contestant really surprised you? In season 8, I did an arrangement for Adam Lambert. It was Disco Week, and everyone assumed he was going to do “I Will Survive” or something. Instead, he told us he wanted to turn “If I Can’t Have You” into a heart-wrenching ballad. Even Simon loved it. Adam gave me credit on national TV, which was the first time anyone had publicly acknowledged me like that.

Preferred way of listening to music: Spotify and YouTube.

To you, the future of the show looks like: I like to believe it can go on for a long time. As long as Idol can keep producing people like Phillip Phillips – I mean, “Home” went triple platinum! – I think it can have a long shelf life.

And, in that future, are you coaching contestants? I’m also an aspiring songwriter. I wrote the song played on the finale of Idol last year. It was this joke that Randy Jackson always told contestants: “You’re so good, you could sing the phone book.” So we wrote a song for the finale called “Singing the Phone Book.” They were actually holding up yellow pages.

1. Talent can keep you somewhere, but it doesn’t get you in the door. Networking and meeting the right people at the right time – that’s it. Take every job you can to meet people and learn more songs.

2. It helps to have a working knowledge of all different types of music.

3. Then, just wait for me to turn in my retirement papers. But that won’t be for a while.

You can follow Michael Orland on twitter at @MichaelOrland. Photos, from top: Ray Garcia; courtesy of Michael Orland.

NEXT: The Video Game Voice Actor

The Shark Conservationist

David Shiffman, 27, poses with a lemon shark in the Everglades National Park.
David Shiffman, 28, takes ahold of a lemon shark in the Everglades National Park. The species’ name originates from its yellow coloration.

A natural reaction upon seeing a shark is run! Hide! Swim away as fast as possible!

Not so with David Shiffman. Born and bred in Pittsburgh, Pa., where the closest in proximity he came to the predators was through the glass panes of a local aquarium, Shiffman now studies sharks in the flesh in Miami. Below, the shark conservation biologist and blogger takes a deep-dive into the dangers of his job—and the dangers of shark fin soup.

Age: 28
Graduated from: Duke University, biology degree with a concentration in marine science; College of Charleston, Master’s in marine biology. “Now, I’m at the University of Miami getting my Ph.D., and a student at the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program and the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy.
Based in: Miami, Fla.
Previous jobs: Counselor at a science and scuba camp in the Florida Keys; research assistant at Duke University

What first drew you to sharks? Most little boys – and girls, too – have a thing for sharks and dinosaurs. And I just never grew out of mine.

How would you sum up your job in a few sentences? I’m studying how sharks fit into the marine ecosystem and why they’re important to the ocean. I want to dedicate my entire life to being a university professor doing university-level research on this.

"I would like to dedicate my entire life to [working with sharks," Shiffman says.
“I would like to dedicate my entire life to [working with sharks],” Shiffman says. Photo: Christine Shepard
So, I’ll ask the obvious: why are sharks important? Most predators are important to keeping the ocean balanced. The decline in shark population affects the entire food chain. Sharks are one of the most endangered groups of animals in the world; scientists have observed population declines of 90% or more in some species in areas where they were once abundant.

The biggest drivers of endangerment: The demand for shark fin soup is the single largest driver for overfishing, without a doubt. Bycatching is probably the second-largest issue facing sharks—that’s when you’re trying to catch one species of fish, but you accidentally catch another near your target. Millions of sharks a year are victims of bycatching, and often die even if released back into the ocean.

Do you physically handle the sharks? Yes. Every time I’m out on the boat catching sharks, I get a thrill.  Our primary protective gear is closed-toes shoes—no flip-flops—and sunglasses and sunscreen.

Most people think of sharks in the context of shark attacks. Does that make it difficult to gather support for shark conservation? Yeah, you have a one-in-five chance of dying from heart disease, but a one-in-five-million chance of dying from a shark attack. No one is afraid to go to a fast food restaurant, but a lot of people are afraid to go in the water.

One of the school groups with Shiffman's team on the boat, after watching a blacktip shark. The pump in the shark's mouth helps it breathe when out of the water.
One of the student groups with Shiffman’s crew on the boat, after catching a blacktip shark. The pump in the shark’s mouth helps it breathe on dry land.

Best part of your job: When we take students out on the boat with us. Last year, our lab took over 1,000 high school students from around the country out into the field to help with our research. Our boat can accommodate up to 20 guests, in addition to our crew. I love getting to see a shark through the eyes of a kid who’s never seen one in the wild before.

I’m guessing their eyes are often filled with fear. Well, most people grew up being afraid of sharks. Even if high school students haven’t seen Jaws, their parents have. So, yes, some are excited and some are nervous when we pull a big shark onto the boat.

Did you grow up afraid of sharks? Not really. Pittsburgh is pretty far from the ocean, but the aquarium there had some great shark tanks. I used to sit there all the time.

Most challenging part of your job: The hours. An article in Forbes called university professors one of the least stressful jobs around, but that’s nonsense. None of my colleagues work fewer than 50 or 60 hours a week.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? It’s not that scary. People always ask if I’ve ever been bitten, and the answer is no. Most of my photos of sharks—that I’ve snapped while scuba diving or snorkeling—are of the sharks swimming away. They’re scared of us. I was seriously injured once, but it wasn’t because of a shark. I accidentally put a giant fishing hook through my hand.

The biggest shark you’ve ever encountered: We recently caught a bull shark that was about 9 feet long and 400 pounds. But we’ve caught bull sharks almost twice as heavy as that. The biggest shark I’ve ever caught was 13 feet; the biggest shark the lab has ever caught was a 16-foot tiger shark.

The sandbar shark (pictured here in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina) is one of the biggest coastal sharks in the world.
The sandbar shark (pictured here in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina) is one of the biggest coastal sharks in the world.

You’re very vocal on Twitter. How do you see the platform helping your work? I’m very involved in the online communication of science, both through my lab and through my personal blog and Twitter. The Internet is great at spreading correct information, but it’s also great at spreading rumors and lies.

Twitter must-follows: That list would be longer than the rest of this interview. There’s no way to list just a few people without someone feeling left out—and I will get phone calls about it. People interested in learning more about sharks should follow the hashtags #SaveSharks, #Shark, and #Sharks.

How should government play a role in saving sharks? The solution is a sustainable global fishery that is well enforced by quotas and rules from a responsible government. It doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, but that’s the solution. People can help by lobbying the government or getting involved with responsible conservation organizations that are already lobbying the government.

Your dinner plate at seafood or sushi restaurants includes: In southern Florida, local mahi-mahi and stone crab are some of the most sustainable fish around. I avoid most kinds of tuna, and Chilean sea bass and red snapper are usually trouble. Sustainable seafood means it’s been harvested in such a way that it doesn’t harm the population of fish or damage the environment.

Study hard and do well in your math and science classes. You know that stuff you learn in math or science class that people say, “When are you ever going to use this?” Well, I use that stuff every day. Also attend scientific conferences—and ask questions. Or simply ask me questions on Twitter at @whysharksmatter.

Unless noted otherwise, all photos courtesy of David Shiffman.  

Next up in seafaring No Joe Schmos: the professional mermaid.

The Dog Colorist

Pet groomer Dawn Omboy owns two standard poodles, one toy poodle, and one Pomeranian.

If you ever wished for a poodle with a hot pink Mohawk or leopard-print nails, you’re in luck. At Klippers, a full-service spa of sorts for cats and dogs based in Columbus, Georgia, Dawn Omboy specializes in creative pet styling – dyeing fur, attaching feather extensions, and painting nails with water-based Pawdicure Polish Pens, marker-like pens that fill up with paint when shaken and pressed.

In her creative styling classes, Omboy teaches colorists-to-be the importance of sharp color lines, elegance, and a “wow” factor. She has dyed dogs’ fur to resemble pandas, dragons, and jesters. Once, she painted pirate features onto one of her own pups. “One of her legs is a lot shorter than the others,” Omboy explained. “So I colored it to look like a [pirate’s] wooden leg.”

Age: I’ll be 54 this year.
Graduate from: I didn’t attend college. As far as grooming goes, I’m self-taught.
Based in:
Columbus, Georgia
Years in the business:
I’ve known for about 39 years – since age 15 – that I wanted to be a pet groomer.
Previous jobs:
I did some restaurant work in my younger days.

Growing up, did you tend to your family’s pets? We had a cocker spaniel and a couple of schnauzers, and I groomed them all. I wanted to do hair, and I liked animals better than people.

Daily responsibilities: We come into the salon and make sure that the shampoos are fresh and the towels are fluffy and folded. Then, we receive the clients, one by one, and discuss their wishes for their pets: bathing and brushing, shaving their hair, painting their nails (sometimes with art, like little flowers or stripes), and dyeing their fur.

The animals sit still long enough for you to paint their nails? The nontoxic paint dries in less than 40 seconds. But not every dog is a candidate for it. Most dogs really appreciate the grooming aspect – they love the attention – but not all of them want you to touch their feet or nails. We have to train them to accept grooming – the buzzing of the razor, the rubbing of their heads, the water on their fur. [Each pedicure with nail art costs about $20.]  

Dog that looks like fox
An all-white coat underwent this foxy transformation.

A few years ago, pet owners in China received a lot of press for dyeing pets to resemble other animals. Do you provide that service at Klippers? Yes. We don’t charge a lot for it, since it’s not a high-market area – a panda trim on a small dog would probably be around $75. We use an applicator brush to set in the dye, and then rinse the fur so the dye doesn’t bleed.

Your craziest trim: For a Looney Tunes-themed competition, I painted Tweety Bird on one side of a dog’s fur and Bugs Bunny on the other side. I called her Looney Grooms.

What’s the appeal of your work? For a special occasion, or to put a smile on their face. The color lines should be nice and sharp and conform to the dog’s body. Maybe someone wants to paint their dog with school colors for a big football game, or with pastel colors for Easter.

Your website also boasts feather extensions and hair tinsel. You don’t think that’s a bit excessive? I don’t, but I know that some people do. Once, I was walking with my pink poodle, and a girl hollered at me that dogs aren’t supposed to be that color. But she had purple hair! A companion dog’s job is just that: to be one’s companion.

Omboy uses dyes made with beeswax and cosmetic grade pigments, which often last about six to eight weeks.

Some even consider painting pets a form of animal cruelty. In fact, prior to July 2012, dyeing pets was illegal in Florida. I can show you pictures of things that are cruel. Neglect is cruel. Creative grooming is far from cruel. That law in Florida was meant to prevent people from dyeing Easter bunnies and chicks, but it blanketed all animals. In July 2012, they removed the law completely – after all, there are products made for animals.

Did you work in Florida while the law was in effect? I competed in creative styling competitions there for a few years, until some officers from animal control came in and made a stink about it. No charges were pressed against me.

Number of regular customers: More than 1,000 cats and dogs. Some are weekly, some are monthly, and some are yearly clients.

Only cats and dogs? Mostly. I’ve had some freaky animals come in, like guinea pigs, ferrets, and sheep. Once, a lady brought in a miniature horse for us to shave down.

How steep is the learning curve to become a pet groomer? I started off attending trade show competitions and seminars to further my education in the field. Then, I studied with the Nash Academy in Lexington, Kentucky, and now I’m a National Certified Master Groomer with the National Dog Groomers Association of America.

One of Dawn's poodles sported the NBC signature peacock for an appearance on The Today Show in 2007.
One of Dawn’s poodles sported the NBC signature peacock for an appearance on The Today Show in 2007.

Best part of your job: Playing with my dogs and taking them to work.

Most challenging part of your job: Watching dogs grow old and die.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? It’s very physically demanding, and you’re on your toes all the time. I probably work on about 12 to 16 dogs each day.

Your email signature: “Making the world more colorful, one dog at a time.”

Make sure the [animal] is comfortable with what you’re doing. This line of work is a labor of love. Learn different coat types; for example, soft, curly hair is easier to color than a coarser coat.

For more No Joe Schmos accompanied by furry friends, meet the airport canine ambassador and the pet detective.

All photos courtesy of Dawn Omboy and Klippers’ Facebook page.

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The Cardstacker (Who Doesn’t Watch House of Cards)

Bryan Berg's recreation of the Dallas skyline used 1,060 decks of cards.
Bryan Berg’s recreation of the Dallas skyline used 1,060 decks of cards. That’s more than 55,000 playing cards.

“There’s this notion that a house of cards is fragile,” says Bryan Berg, who has perfected the art of stacking cards over some 20 years. In fact, he explains, intricate houses can weigh in at hundreds and hundreds of pounds, and often require leaf blowers to take down. “Fragility is relative, right? I can put a brick building up to a tornado, and then you realize that it’s fragile, too.”

Berg, a Guinness World Record Holder at age 38, maneuvers around his freestanding constructions using ladders or scaffolding. His tallest creation, the Dallas skyline, is more than four times his height, towering at 26 feet – the holder of the Guinness World Record for Tallest House of Cards.

Hotels, television networks, and city governments approach Berg with requests for replicas of existing buildings or objects, like creating the largest casino in the world – the Venetian Macao Resort-Hotel in China – during the Chinese New Year in 2010. It took almost two months and 4,000 decks of cards to construct.

Below, Berg describes his 7- or 8-hour workdays, which he mostly spends in silence (except for crunch time, when he cues up electronica on his iPod) and wearing socks.

Age: 38
Graduated from: Bachelor of Architecture from Iowa State University; Master of Design Studies from Harvard
Based in: New Mexico
Years in the business: About 19
Previous jobs: I worked at my dad’s construction company throughout high school, college, and even after. That was part of what allowed me to get my footing with cardstacking.

I captured my [first] Guinness World Record in 1992 when I was a senior in high school. It was 14 feet and 6 inches tall, much higher than anything I had ever built before. But my first paid project didn’t happen until two years later.

Berg built the Beijing Olympic Village at Langham Place Kowloon, Hong Kong's largest shopping center, in celebration of the Beijing Olympics.
Berg built the Beijing Olympic Village at Langham Place Kowloon, Hong Kong’s largest shopping center, in celebration of the Beijing Olympics.

Did a passion for architecture segue into cardstacking, or vice versa? My interests in the built environment led me to cardstacking, and cardstacking led me into the pursuit of architecture.

When did you realize you could make a living by stacking cards? Well through college – if not, after. I considered every project to be an anomaly. Over time, I realized it was more than a fluke, and I took it more seriously.

Do you use novelty cards? Initially, I used whatever I could get my hands on – the cheap decks from the local grocery store. But that created a problem, since [each card] varied in quality and characteristics. So I partnered with this Belgian company Cartamundi to create cards with the ideal height-to-width ratio. I also worked with them to create a special buildable set, with a patent-pending gadget – it’s essentially a training wheel to learn how to stack cards.

Do you use any gadgets? No. But I’m not placing cards in a random or haphazard way – I design every single arrangement in a geometric and orderly method. But there’s no bending or manipulation of cards.

By nature, your art is impermanent – you can’t exactly transport a house of cards. I’ve only used glue with two projects, and I’m very upfront about them: Once, for the Holiday Inn, I glued together key cards for a life-size hotel recreation. Another time, for the World Series of Poker, I glued together poker chips for a full-scale “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign that hung in the air. Watch the time lapse below:

Your technique: There are two principal ways to stack cards: horizontally and vertically. I use both. I also produce a computer-generated rendering for my clients, but the finer points take a lot of improvisation. The musical analogy is that you’re given the time frame and key signature, but you have to fill in the notes.

The deconstruction process: I don’t get upset about knocking [a project] down, as long as I’ve got some good pictures. It’s part of the process; it doesn’t feel complete until I’ve knocked it down. I usually use a leaf blower.

It really requires that much force? A common question I get is, What if you sneeze while you’re working? People don’t realize that a house of cards is very heavy – hundreds and hundreds of pounds. A sneeze won’t do anything. Any damage while I’m building is isolated; it doesn’t spread because of all the partitions.

Best part of your job: Being able to be artistic and to do what I like.

Most challenging part of your job: When people come to us without a clear vision of what they want, or too hardened of an idea.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Actually stacking the cards takes a pretty small amount of time compared to planning and coordinating with everyone involved. My wife, Kristin, holds up the business end of things.

Berg was commissioned to break his own record at The Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, the largest casino in the world. The project took 44 days, 219,000 cards, and set a new Guinness World Record.
Replicating the Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, the largest casino in the world, took 44 days, 219,000 cards, and set a new Guinness World Record for Largest House of Cards.

How do you navigate around structures that are taller than you are? With ladders or scaffolding. You don’t want to stack yourself into a corner.

Have you dabbled in real bricks and mortar? I’m actually building a real house for myself right now. I’m the general contractor, so I have a crew.

Any interest in Netflix’s House of Cards? I’ve heard about it, but haven’t seen it.

Some structures must be impossible to recreate using cards. Yes, like the Statue of Liberty’s arm or the Golden Gate Bridge or an airliner’s wings. There’s nothing to support it.

Your required reading: Screw It, Let’s Do It by Richard Branson. It’s about how he made his life fortune by going against the advice of his financial advisors.

Your favorite architectural work: The temples at Angkor in Cambodia and the wooden architecture in Japan.

How do you calculate your rates? It’s a day rate that includes any travel costs. A big part of this is learning to suggest a reasonable price that isn’t a rip-off for [the client] or for me. Over time, you learn what something is worth.

Look at the work of others, but realize that sometimes the best ideas might not come from the human element. They might be outside in nature or in some totally unrelated realm of data or experience.

Follow Bryan Berg on, his Facebook page, and at @cardstacker on Twitter.

Next: Meet the SNL cue cards guy, who makes a living with a very different type of cards.