UWM alum finds fun and success on Lego reality TV show

UWM alumnus Paul Wellington is 33, has two young children and works a full-time job as social media specialist with the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library.

And he still enjoys playing with Lego bricks.

His expertise with the small, multicolored bricks landed him a spot on the fourth season of the “LEGO Masters” competition show on Fox. (The show airs locally at 8 p.m. Central Time on Thursdays.) He and his sister, Nealita Nelson, who still lives in Milwaukee, form a team, one of 12 competing for a $100,000 prize.

“My sister is amazing. She had no Lego experience since we were kids 15 years ago, but she caught on pretty quick, and we’re doing pretty well so far,” Wellington said.

The show was recorded in spring, but the brother-sister team can’t announce how they finished just yet. The last of 10 episodes is scheduled to air Thanksgiving Day.

Wellington started building when he was a toddler. He started with blocks and Matchbox cars, creating little neighborhoods for the cars to drive around in. When he was 3 or 4, his parents bought him a Lego set featuring a city. “I’ve been doing it pretty much since then.”

His passion for Lego inspired him to come to UWM for architecture. “That was 100% of the reason I pursued architecture,” he said.

He sometimes brought his sets to the Sandburg Residence Hall and kept on building. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture but ended up spending 12 years at the Milwaukee Public Library, where a part-time job turned into a career.

“I loved working with the public and helping people, so I just never left. After I graduated with my master’s degree, I ended up going full-time at the library.”

Wellington and Nelson work on their party boat creation during this season’s first episode. (Tom Griscom photo courtesy of Fox)

Wellington’s favorite Lego buildings are based on neoclassical or midcentury modern styles. “I don’t actually copy them directly, but I’m inspired by them.”

He likes the look of historical British buildings as well as New York and Chicago cityscapes.

His model of the National Congress of Brazil by architect Oscar Niemeyer was featured in the book “The LEGO Architect.” That piece and his Lego version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple were also featured on the website “Brick Architect.”

Wellington has also written his own book, “Black Built: History and Architecture in the Black Community,” about the work of African American architects.

He and his sister both hope to serve as inspirations and role models for other aspiring young Black people interested in building with Legos.

There are some challenges to building interest in the activity in those communities, especially in areas that aren’t well off, Wellington said.

“The problem is really the cost. Lego is not cheap. That’s one barrier, particularly in low-income areas.”

He’s been approached by his former Lego group in Wisconsin about ways to reach out to the Black community. He’s also working on his own to figure out ways to get more minority communities involved. “I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’ve been working on it.”

He’s now involved with a Lego group in Cincinnati, and continues to build his own creations just for fun. Although his 6-year-old daughter really enjoys Lego, his 2-year-old son isn’t quite into it as much – for now.

One of the things he likes about building with the tiny blocks is that it’s good for all ages. Children enjoy it, teens can add robotics and adults can just relax and have fun, Wellington said.

(Editor’s note: The rest of this story contains spoilers about the details and results of the fourth season of “LEGO Masters.” Please stop reading if you don’t want to learn about those details and results.)

Paul Wellington and his sister, Nealita Nelson, build “Stella’s Fire Engine” during the second episode. The challenge was to build pet palaces for kittens. (Tom Griscom photo courtesy of Fox)

Although he moved to Ohio last May, his Wisconsin roots show up in the TV competition. On the first episode, the challenge was to build a boat, and he and his sister created one that featured cheese.

On the fourth episode, the contestants were told to build a set based on a sound. The sound he and Nelson got was a squeak. They built a giant baby, who like Wellington’s own son was about a year and half old at the time. The Lego baby stepped on a mouse who made the squeaking sound when his Lego older sister, modeled on Wellington’s own daughter, tried to steal a piece of cheese from his grip. “So we had that Wisconsin tie with the cheese.”

Wellington and Nelson won the sixth episode challenge, building a telescope. “We’re the first all-Black team in the U.S. version of the show to win a challenge,” Wellington said.

And they came in second in the seventh episode, building a fashion-worthy handbag that could fit a pet. That left them as one of just five teams remaining.

Of course, friends and family back in Wisconsin are watching the show and cheering on the siblings.

Even though the show has completed taping, he and his sister have both participated in Lego events through the company and local groups. She’s leading a class on Lego through the Milwaukee Rec Department.  He’s done some guest appearances and exhibits at the local library and museum and took part in a recent Lego show in Cincinnati.

Wellington is grateful to his parents, who gave him that first Lego set and the start on a lifelong passion. “If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be on the show at all.”

And, after his parents divorced when he was a child, he found building with Lego bricks gave him solace and focus through that difficult time “Lego was one of the things that was constant in my life, a place I could turn to and just forget everything else.”

Most of all, he’s still proud of what Lego can offer children and adults that many other toys can’t.

“To me the value is the creativity. You can build anything you can put your mind to and the pieces last forever. You can build something, tear it down, build something new.”

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