Scott Crawford maneuvers his wheelchair from the front of his house through his living room to a dining room table set with LEGO replicas of Jackson landmarks.
He has built a LEGO cathedral that measures only about a foot long, detailed with stained-glass windows, a roof that opens to show all the people sitting in pews, a pipe organ, and even communion bread and wine on the altar.
Crawford's replica of City Hall includes the council chamber, an elevator and solar panels. Jackson City Hall doesn't have a roof with solar-panels that store energy, but Crawford thinks it should.
This tabletop sampling is not Crawford's entire LEGO Jackson complex. He has built enough structures to fill his entire living room and dining room together. He stores the extra pieces of Jackson in a spare bedroom. He wheeled through his living room, turned on the bedroom light and paused.
"Be kind," he said.
The bed was stacked with about two dozen plastic bins with lids. The neat bins varied in sizes, some long and shallow, others stubby. Several original LEGO packages held pieces of spaceships and rocket launchers. One of the plastic bins on the bottom contained the fire department. Someone had knocked into it, though, so one of the towers was damaged inside the Rubbermaid container. Crawford said it was OK.
"LEGOs break," he said in a forced whisper. "But they go back together."
Crawford, 45, has multiple sclerosis. He wears a splint on his right hand that's wavy like a gigantic piece of corrugated cardboard, only it is hard plastic. He wears it to keep his fingers separate and to keep his hand from clenching up in a fist that would never unclench. At night, he also has to wear a similar splint on his left hand.
He grew up in Vicksburg and went to Millsaps College. In 1995, Crawford completed his doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi. He got an internship in Miami, Fla., and eventually a job. As a young professional, he had it made. He often went sailing, and he traveled.
When he was 33, he got a bad case of progressive multiple sclerosis. "I went from snowboarding to a wheelchair in a year," he said. Crawford moved back to Mississippi that year to be close to family.
Crawford can no longer work as a psychologist. MS so exhausts him, he has to sleep 12 hours a day. Even talking to people wears him out. "Speaking is like yelling for me," he said.
But his eyes lit up, and he did talk in detail when he showed off his workspace where he creates LEGO buildings. Several plastic organizers with drawers fill the space. Small ones hold little, unusual pieces. Larger ones hold fat chunks of UFOs and starships. The drawers sort LEGO pieces by color, by size, by the original set the pieces might have made up.
Three identical Atlantis project boxes sat opened. He had to use pieces from all three boxes to create his City Hall. He does this for many of his original LEGO structures—he has to buy several kits and then choose the pieces he needs for the project at hand. He keeps the extra pieces in the lined-up boxes.
Creating LEGO Jackson is as much about a future vision of urban planning as it is replicating details in specific landmarks. Crawford has a LEGO Convention Center that happens to be hosting a UFO conference with aliens in attendance and spaceships to ride.
One of the signs in LEGO Jackson reads, "Keep Jackson Beautiful." Crawford serves on that particular city board, and littering is one of his concerns. He wants his scaled capital city to inspire residents to be clean, to pick up and to plant flowers. His LEGO city has many small gardens and trees.
Crawford, who receives disability insurance benefits, volunteers to raise awareness of Americans with Disabilities Act. That work involves educating government agencies and private developers about ADA requirements to make sidewalks, entries, bathrooms and parking lots accessible for disabled residents. He serves on Jackson's ADA Advisory Council and Chairs Handlift Advisory Council.
Despite the fatigue, Crawford works on a big project in spurts. This year, he expanded LEGO Jackson from a 12-foot long display to 24 feet of his vision. He's excited for school children to see the display and get their own ideas, although he's a little concerned they might reach out and touch too much.
He's devised a system for putting LEGOs together. Sometimes he takes his right hand out of the splint and uses the right thumb in his building. He can snap together a lot of pieces using only his left hand, though. Exercising his fingers and wrists are important, but that's not why he builds with LEGOs. Besides his love for it, he has another practical reason.
"It's cognitive therapy," Crawford said. Multiple sclerosis damages myelin in the brain and spinal cord. As a result, cognition suffers in 50 percent of cases. High-level brain functions, such as learning, organizing and solving problems, can diminish. Building new structures with LEGOs requires the same skills.
"People meet me and they say, 'You seem OK,'" Crawford said. He said he often tells them, "But you didn't know me before."
LEGO Jackson is on display beginning Thursday, Dec. 8, at the Arts Center of Mississippi (201 E. Pascagoula St., 601-960-1500). Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and noon-5 p.m. Sundays. The free exhibit remains through Jan. 15. An opening reception is Thursday, Dec. 8, beginning at 4 p.m. For information, call 601-960-1500.
I just changed the end date for the exhibit in the last paragraph. It will be open through Jan. 15.
- Valerie Wells