Farewell to a Legend: Mourning the passing of Nate “nnenn” Nielson

Over the last couple of months, Keith has brought us joy every Sunday with his interviews. Today, the burden of responsibility falls on Keith’s shoulders to bring us tragic news…

nnennIt is my unpleasant duty to report the passing of our friend and fellow builder Nate “nnenn” Nielson. Nate’s death was the result of an automobile accident earlier this month. A resident of Tekoa, Washington, Nate was a father, an artist, and a professor specializing in graphic design. Nate is survived by his beloved wife and two sons ages 3 and 8.
It is important to Nate’s family that he is remembered by our community, one that he took great joy in participating in. Above all they want Nate to be remembered as a devoted husband and father, and for us to know that his interest in the brick was inseparable from his love for his boys. Nate was notorious for his brevity, and when I was searching through his models, interviews, and comments for inspiration, this quote jumped off the screen:

“Ha! Spring break a week ago. Rainy day today. No friends. Two boys.”

Nate’s other great passion was teaching the principles of design and graphic art, something that should seem obvious to our community. It was Nate’s goal to encourage others and to push people to their creative potential. In our small corner of the universe, I think it is safe to say: mission accomplished, Nate.

LEGO Neo-Classic Space nnenn starfighterI didn’t know Nate very well, certainly not as well as I would have liked. We did however share a love of the brick, 70’s sci-fi and being a father. I always imagined I’d run into nnenn at a convention…that he’d slip out of the crowd on public-day looking like a dead ringer for Christopher Walken. In this fantasy he would walk up to my model on display and say something like:

“Guess what Goldman?! I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription… is more cowbell”.

I’ve always been a fan of Nate’s models, even when I initially disliked him in a superficial way for his heretical tendencies with my sacred bricks. In time I grew to respect him for his uncompromising stance and commitment to form over purist devotion. It was my distinct pleasure to interview nnenn last month, and in the process we exchanged some fun emails; I only wish I’d asked better questions.

You know a builder is big-time when he not only gets an entire scale named after him, but an element as well. Nnenn’s consistent level of quality and production since his debut in late 2006 is nothing short of extraordinary. I can say without exaggeration that Nate influenced a generation of builders, and even an old man or two like me. Nate had 1347 contacts on Flickr, 1347 students for a guy who loved to teach. I think time will prove that he taught us well.

For those of you missed it, James Wadsworth of LAML Radio conducted an audio interview with Nate last summer. Tom over at Masoko Tanga also has a wonderful interview with Nate on his site.

Missing Man Vic Viper Formation – BrickWorld & BrickCon

LEGO Vic Viper by nnennI’m organizing a fly-in style community build for the Brickworld 2010 fan convention in Chicago, and potentially at BrickCon 2010 in Seattle. Anyone who is interested in celebrating the life and models of nnenn is invited to bring or mail a small space-fighter in his iconic Vic Viper style to the convention. The vipers will be arranged in the traditional “missing man formation” common to air forces around the world.

Nate drew inspiration from his father who served the US as an F-16 fighter pilot, making the fly-in seem even more appropriate. So if you’d like to participate in the formation, contact me at Legomankeith AT aol DOT com for further details.


It only seems fitting to close this tribute to a legend with a word or two from some familiar voices in the community. The Brothers Brick and I invite all of you to add your thoughts to this memorial guestbook. There is no rhyme or reason to these first 20 fans; they are simply friends that I reached out to, to help make sense of Nate’s untimely passing. The one exception is Peter L. Morris, who contacted me after speaking directly with Nate’s widow and graciously invited me to participate in this tribute. Pete was closer to Nate than most of us, and his insights into Nate as a friend have been invaluable as we prepared this tribute.

Rest in peace nnenn, you’ll be missed.

Read the guestbook and leave your own comments after the jump:

Peter L. Morris

My first real encounter with nnenn was on his Brickshelf account. I was checking it almost every night, and a small fighter appeared with this caption:

“QrT-74. Upallik standard law enforcement. Ironically, very popular among pirates. Nod to the starfighters of peterlmorris, one of the better colorist on brickshelf.”

I laughed because I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to color, as I have a form of color blindness, so I took it as a great compliment, especially from a guy like him who burst onto the scene seemingly with no incubation period and a massive collection of impressive MOCs.

The bricks to him were a means to an end. Like an itch that is impossible to satisfy, he saw things that needed to be shared, and made them come alive. We are all impoverished with his loss, but not just for the lack of MOCs. He desired, perhaps naively, a community that shared more than it quibbled, and listened more than it spoke. I miss him and will continue to miss him.

Good bye, Nate. You can’t be forgotten.

Rodney Bistline

I am certainly a ‘nnenn fanboy’ when it comes to Nate’s Lego creations and I know I’m not alone in viewing him as an all-time favorite builder. But I was also impressed by the way he generally presented himself in our online community. Despite his respectable secrecy in some regards, he seemed like someone who wore his heart on his sleeve and wore it well. He continually gave back by sharing his expertise, being active in the ongoing social life of the community, and by presenting us all with a seemingly endless supply of amazing creations. For me, many a tedious or tense day was momentarily brightened by setting eyes on a new nnenn masterpiece. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family. I hope they know how much he inspired so many of us. Of all the “people I’ve never met” in the Legoverse, he’s one of the few I could consider a friend and really hoped to meet one day. Very saddened to hear of his passing.

Ley Ward

A farewell to a man I barely knew. In our online community of LEGO enthusiasts, there are several whom I have met in person and several whom I would like to meet. Nnenn was of the latter category. I was quite excited by the possibility of his attendance at BrickCon this past year as I had hoped to meet him and perhaps shoot the breeze about music or whatever. Sadly that never happened.

Despite the paradox (having never known his name, let alone seen his face), he put a very human face on the non-purist side of our hobby. Rather than a youngster with sharpie in hand or clay at the ready … he was a truly talented artist (who made it clear he was not happy with that label and had a solid professional interest in that very subject) who caused many of us to question our own purism and aspirations to art.

Perhaps the best way I could honour his passing is by cutting an element and including a non-LEGO piece in a creation, not to change my own approach, but to never forget his challenge to all of us.

He was truly talented and prolific, often mind-bendingly so. He will be truly missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.

Andrew Lee

The passing of the prolific and talented nnenn is a profound loss for both myself and the Lego community. Nate single handedly pushed and challenged the limits of our hobby and what can be done with the brick. A man shrouded in mystery, Nate was both a gentleman and a scholar. He will be missed but his work will live on.

Nannan Zhang

Nnenn was an inspiration for the community. We knew him not only as a brilliant builder but also as an innovator who is unafraid to push the limits of creativity and even the medium itself. The countless space creations displaying his unique style could easily populate an entire idea book. I once asked him when he would stop building spaceships, and he told me he would keep going until he has exhausted every possible configuration. I didn’t think it was possible, but neither did he.

Mark Neumann

I’m reflecting on the builder known to me as nnenn. Realizing that I really never knew him, yet feeling like I just lost a friend. I have a sense of sorrow, knowing that our community has been robbed of one of the best builders our hobby has had the fortune of knowing. We’re a curious group, us fans of Lego. There really are not that many of us, and the loss of one affects us all. Nate was part of the collective creativity that makes our universe, and when one of those stars in the collective suddenly goes dark, the entire landscape is darker because of it. But then we find ourselves looking, searching really, and while we may never find that same star we find other light. Lots of light, more than perhaps we’ve never seen before. I find myself thankful that I have this group to surround myself with and feel its brightness. We are the sum of all we travel with, directly or indirectly; influenced in great and insignificant ways. It is in this spirit that I celebrate my brother. Namaste’ nnenn.

Jon Palmer

I never hung out with nnenn. I never shared a beer with him in a bar packed with other LEGO nerds or traded driving shifts with him on a cross-country road trip to a LEGO convention. I never traded emails or IMs with him. I didn’t know his name…But his coming and going has effected me nonetheless. A quick punch in the face; something to shake me up and give me pause.

The man himself never wasted his time on too many words or unnecessary discourse. His economy of language was legendary. And like all great LEGO builders his creations spoke for him. Good on nnenn.

The other night I talked to someone who talked to someone who had just talked to nnenn’s wife. The builder had died in a car wreck. A man I had never met in any conventional way is now gone and I’ve been staring off into space randomly in the middle of the day ever since.

nnenn’s entrance onto the LEGO building scene in 2006 coincided with my gradual exit. The very first time I heard about him, it was from a space builder telling me that there was this new guy who uses “clone” LEGO parts along with his real LEGO pieces. He was using whatever bit of plastic or sticker or modified part he wanted. His obvious skill, matched with the perceived subversion of our building values caused quite a stir initially. Although I’m a part purist myself I never gave much thought to this controversy…and I like some good subversion. Let’s hear it for chaos and new blood. Regardless, nnenn soon shrugged off his reputation as some sort of a rabble-rouser and quickly became a LEGO building god. His output was staggering.

nnenn’s understanding of color theory was perfect. Adventurous. His appreciation of clean lines and a well thought out design was apparent. nnenn built a great LEGO spaceship. He built hundreds of them.

nnenn humbly disregarded his creations as art. They were simply craft or toy. Something that was just for fun. Something that just wooshed through space and went pew-pew and blew up aliens.

But indulge me for a moment and consider nnenn’s creations as more than just LEGO models. More than just pop-culture creations. Consider these colorful objects as communication. And let’s say the single greatest thing you or I can do while we are here is communicate to one another. Assume the method of this communication is entirely irrelevant. That this message is delivered in the form of a song or a book or a painting or even a small LEGO creation is unimportant. What is important is that you speak to the world. Make your vision clear. The thing you alone see or hear in your head. Show it to us. To your friends, to strangers and to your sons.

It can therefore be concluded that stoic, quiet and anonymous nnenn in fact shouted at the LEGO community and the world for 4 amazing years. Shouted the images and colors and ideas in his head at all of us.

Thank you, nnenn. Thank you for never ever shutting up. You are greatly missed.

Nathan Proudlove

The first time we really got a glimpse into nnenn’s life was the August 2008 interview on LAML radio. I was immediately endeared to him upon discovering that he, like myself, was a stay at home dad. He related stories of building with his young sons that resonated with me and my own experience building for and with my son. Most in the Lego community will remember nnenn as the mysterious, rebellious, anonymous, larger than life entity whose presence could not be ignored and will not be forgotten now that he’s gone, but the void created by his absence from our midst is nothing compared to that he left at home with his wife and kids. My thoughts and prayers are with them during this tragic time.

Tyler Clites

I like to think of nnenn as the infamous “sasquatch” or “bigfoot” of the online Lego community. Nobody new what he looked like, his image was a blur as a result of his secretive nature and his “footprint” on the Lego community was enormous. When I first became aware of the enigma that was nnenn, I despised him. I saw him as a cheater without the creativity or ability to use Lego parts in the way they were designed. It didn’t take long for me to realize how wrong I was. In his use of non-Lego parts, he was more creative than any purist builder. He opened his mind to the possibilities of brick-built art, while the rest of us remain in our box of Lego without even looking at the possibilities beyond. I know that I speak of nnenn exclusively in terms of his achievements and art, but I’m confident that he placed a little of himself into each of his MOCs. Loosing an artist such as nnenn is like losing an artist like van Gogh or Michelangelo. Their death is a great loss, but they will live on through their art. My prayers go out to nnenn’s family and anyone who had the privileged of personally knowing such a great artist.

Pete Reid

Nnenn and I collaborated a while back. He was a pleasure to work with online, and a good friend. I always planned to meet him some day, and we were going to drink beer and he’d tell me stuff about spaceships and art and it would have been amazing.

His legacy will never die.

Soren Roberts

I didn’t know Nnenn very well — we had one or two email conversations, we dropped comments on one another’s latest models. It feels a little strange to be eulogizing someone I never met and didn’t really know.

I don’t believe in an afterlife. I’m sure my saying that offends a lot of people. But I’m not going to say something about going to a better place or things happening for a reason. People die for good reasons, and bad reasons, and no real reason at all. I’m sad that his death was one of the last kind.

I’ll remember Nnenn as a guy who always had something interesting to say. He had a sense of perspective, which is pretty rare in this hobby. He irritated the hell out of the people who needed it. He built good models. He gave great feedback. I’m glad I knew him, however little.

Tim Gould

The internet makes for strange varieties of acquaintance. I find myself today writing a eulogy for someone whose name I only found out one hour ago. At first I thought I didn’t really know nnenn and didn’t know what to write but that’s not really true. I feel I’ve chatted, debated, discussed and interacted with him enough to write something.

Three things stand out for me about my acquaintance with nnenn: he was willing to stand by his convictions, he was happy to argue and debate and he adored his family, especially his young boys. I’ll focus on these.

I really admired his willingness to build his models using techniques and ideas that the community in general considered ‘wrong’. I felt it showed a strong sense of character and I respected him for that. It’s a trait I wish was more common.

Likewise I enjoyed arguing, debating and generally playing out ideas in an adversarial manner with nnenn. He was an engaging person whose thoughts were always well constructed. I thoroughly enjoyed these
interactions and will very much miss them.

Finally it was obvious to anyone just how much nnenn loved the company of his children. Any discussion of his models would invariably end up with him writing comments about ‘his boys’. The older the boys got the more his models seemed to reflect what they liked rather than stuff explicitly for himself. To have such a loving father ripped away is something I wish on noone.

Honestly the news that nnenn had died came as a great shock to me and has left me greatly saddened. I did not know his name but I will very much miss him. I wish his widow and especially his boys all the condolences I can. I hope that nnenn’s online presence persists long enough for his boys to get to know nnenn retrospectively in the way I was priveleged to know him up until now.

PS. I was reminded of this sadly prescient comment when I first heard the news. I know that for me nnenn will be remembered far, far more positively than that.

Shadow Viking (Peter)

I guess the first thing to come to mind is about LEGO… well, it’s all about LEGO; that’s how I knew him. So more accurate would be what he did without LEGO. I think that’s the best testament I can give. From my limited interaction he seemed kind and polite, and I always appreciated his comments. I guess this is a little sappy so I’ll end here. And as cliché as it is, rest in peace.

Leigh Holcombe

As a fellow INTP and part-time agoraphobe, I can understand his reluctance to suffer the slings and arrows of fame and criticism. But he kept building and innovating and sharing in spite of it all. His creativity and persistence will be sorely missed.

Brian Kescenovitz

“Yep…another winner from nnenn. Amazing form? Check. Brilliant color usage? Check. Razor sharp design that is somehow immaculately clean and supremely detailed at the same time? Of course…it’s just nnenn, and he always does that. It’s just nnenn…God help me, if this isn’t occasionally the thought that crossed my mind when one of his works of art appeared in my contact photostream on flickr. And I know I’m not the only one. What a colossal injustice, born of the fact that nnenn was simply so good, so often, for so long. And like so many things, only now when we are deprived of them, do we (or at least I) come to fully appreciate them. Completely irreplaceable in the LEGO community, nnenn’s body of work will continue to amaze, influence, and inspire builders for years to come.

My most heartfelt condolences to nnenn’s widow and two sons. I can’t begin to imagine your loss, but perhaps a fleeting moment of peace might be provided by realizing how much nnenn meant to this community, and how badly he will be missed. Even if some of us are only just now realizing that fact…

Carter Baldwin

Nnenn kept his personal profile online low, generally preferring to let his creations speak for him. Those creations changed the way that the community builds and challenged the way the community thinks about mixing types of brick. He was prolifically inventive, and his almost weekly builds across the past three years have always been a source of inspiration and envy for me. A few weeks ago, out of the blue, he emailed me an edited picture of one of my ships with his classic background and engine flare, after I had posted the difficulties I’d been having with photoshop. That was just how he was — always helpful and always surprising.

Lenny Hoffman

Nate, or nnenn as he was known to us, was always a controversial genius. He built like no one else before, combining color and form in wild and creative ways. He built more quickly, with a high rate of success. Often, he’d post a mind boggling new creation every day for a month in a row, an unprecedent (except when he’d do it again and again) achievement.

He was controversial in his ideas about how to build and in how to commune together. Many people attacked him, mostly unfairly. But all of that controversy will fade away with time. What will remain is how his passion, his creativity, and his willingness to challenge us and himself. We will all remember Nate, in our discussions and in our building, because he did so much so well.

I didn’t always see eye to eye with, and we had our disagreement. But Nate showed me that our community, the we, are our best when we build. When we create. And there is no one who could build as freely as he could.

I’ll miss you, Nate.

James Wadsworth

I’ve never been the greatest interviewer, but when I spoke with nnenn he was more than willing to answer all my questions with honesty and sincerity. It wasn’t long into the interview that nnenn brought up his two boys and his obvious affection towards them. It seemed to come across that nnenn’s building wasn’t a regular hobby to escape from life, but instead to enjoy it to the utmost with his family. That is what I’ll always respect him for.

Dave Shaddix

I must immediately confess that I didn’t have the privilege of getting to know Nate very well.  Nate was an intelligent and well spoken man, but he kept his personal life personal (a trait that is all too uncommon today), so what I best know of Nate or ‘Nnenn’ is his work with LEGO modeling. 
I regarded Nate as a pillar in the community; he constantly challenged us to push our abilities and limits, to try new things and to approach each challenge with a new and often interesting perspective.  His style was instantly recognizable and demanded closer inspection due to his innovative usage and technique.  When he left criticism, his voice was steady, reasonable and constructive; the community will feel his silence.

Tragically, that silence will be heard the loudest by those who love him the most, his wife, his children, family and friends.  I mentioned that I didn’t know Nate very well, but as a man in my mid-30’s with two young children of my own, this hits exceptionally close to home.  My children re-introduced me to LEGO a few short years ago and it quickly became a bond between us.  We share much of our time together building and discussing our common hobby but upon reflection, I realize that I should share much more of my time with them.  Today, my heart and prayers go out for Nate and his family.  Godspeed.

Shannon Sproule

Nnenn’s passing is a massive loss to the international Lego community, he was an inspiration to both old and young with his skillful technique, superb presentation, help on colour theory and downright passion for building. Also his customisation of Lego bricks and creative use of stickers was, to me, a reminder to be loyal only to my imagination. I still can’t believe he’s gone; he helped me immensely improving my mocs, I will miss him greatly. Thoughts go to his family.

308 comments on “Farewell to a Legend: Mourning the passing of Nate “nnenn” Nielson

  1. The Lego Loᴙikeet (flickr)

    Nnenn will be missed by us all, just like portaldude this is very saddening news. May he rest in piece. ;_;

  2. Ramone

    I’m so sorry to hear this news. I only knew of Nnenn as his online/Lego persona and his brilliant builds. It’s so disheartening to think there won’t be any new ones from him in the future. I wish his family all the best.

  3. David Hamilton

    I’ve never really participated here before, and only been reading the past few months, but as I read through the Brothers Brick archives, Nnenn’s models never failed to jump out at me, so I felt I should put my own two cents’ worth in. I’ve been in my own Dark Ages for probably fifteen years now, but I can cite Nnenn’s endless array of fantastic spacecraft in all shapes and sizes, more than anything else, as my personal inspiration for getting back into building. Every time I would see another of his works highlighted here, I would invariably find myself thinking “This guy is amazing… I wish I could make stuff as awesome as this.” If just the sight of his work can have such an effect on a random stranger browsing a website, I can only imagine the kind of positive influence he was on his family and everyone else in his own life. My sincerest condolences to his family… And for my own part, I will just endeavour to honour his memory by building as cool and as interesting space creations as I can. I considered building a Vic Viper in his honour, but I can think of no better tribute to a builder like him, who stood out for his creativity and originality, than to just take those as lessons from him, and to be as creative and original as possible in my own work.

  4. mark rushworth

    i caught some of nnenns work by accident on flickr which lead me here, now i get lego for birthdays and xmas as he fuelled my desire to get back into it. i could never understand how he achieved the fine finnish on pieces and this is something i strive towards.. rip dude.

  5. Aegrus

    Nnenn was one of the first builders I stumbled upon a year or so ago that motivated me to pursue Lego as an adult hobby. Although, I’m not a confident builder I can say with the utmost confidence that Nnenn is one of the most creative and skilled builders around. His builds are so clean and colorful, so intricate and technical, so fun and inspiring.

    I only had the pleasure of interacting with him once, briefly. However, being pretty consistent lurker of the community I know that Nnenn was definitely a good and kind soul.


    As is evident by these postings he will be greatly missed but never forgotten.

    My sincerest condolences to his family as they have lost more than just a hero they have lost a husband and a father.

  6. Brian Cooper

    I was randomly browsing brickshelf and saw something that alluded to the demise of nnenn. An anxious, increasingly unhappy web investigation led here.

    nnenn was the sort of creative spark that you’d like to think was preserved, somehow…

    Imagine an alien race, in another dimension, fighting a war, at the edge of defeat, resources drained, bereft of ideas… then one engineer slumped over a drafting table, half asleep from exhaustion, sits bolt upright and shouts, “I have an idea for a new fighter! It’s beautiful! It just popped into my head! We can win this!”

  7. Liam Faris

    I never knew nnenn. I think that goes for a lot of people here. Yet I have seen all of his creations with a sense of pride and a sense of wonder. I was proud that the Lego community had nnenn as our vanguard of creativity, and his creations were truly spectacular. I am utterly at a loss for words to express how sad this makes me. I just hope he knows he is truly missed by every single member of the Lego community.

  8. Matt Freese

    nnenn was my inspiration for getting back into Legos. I always anticipated his latest release. Farewell to the greatest builder I have ever seen.

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