To hear Chris Ihle tell it, he’s just your typical Iowan who, on his way to work at Wells Fargo one day, saw a car stalled on the railroad tracks as a train approached, pushed the vehicle and its elderly occupants to safety, had a brief brush with fame followed by an epiphany, chucked his 12-year career as a mortgage banker and eventually borrowed $10,000 from his reluctant father to launch a business making life-size re-creations of people using Legos.
It’s a tale as old as time, really.
“It just changed my perspective in terms of life and happiness and what we do with our time,” Ihle, 45, says of that 2013 encounter with the train.
That was the first step on his odd journey to opening his own gallery just off the casino floor inside Circa.
Ihle was driving home to Ames from Kansas City, Missouri, where his daughter had played in a weekend basketball tournament. She was tired and didn’t want to talk, so Ihle started daydreaming about building a life-size Stormtrooper, like the one Barney Stinson had on “How I Met Your Mother.”
Business built out of Legos
After kicking around ideas about how to best pull that off, he decided on Legos, because if you mess up, it’s easy to take everything apart and start again. Ihle would come to see a business opportunity in the Lego re-creation field. Eighteen months ago, he approached his dad for a loan.
“My father’s a truck driver, so asking him to borrow $10,000 to buy Legos was a tough conversation,” Ihle says, laughing. “So I thank God for my mother every day.”
His first clients were Matt and Josh Altman from Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing.” A gig at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show followed.
“This lady hits me up on Instagram and asks me if I could build her husband,” Ihle says of his whirlwind career. “And oh, my gosh, just the way she communicated, I knew that we had to be friends, because she was a hoot.”
That hoot was Nicole Stevens, wife of Circa owner Derek Stevens.
“She’s proud of the work that he does, and she loves herself some Derek,” Ihle says of her request. “And so now we love ourselves some Derek.”
Nicole eventually lured the artist and his team, including builder Doug Kinney, to their new home in Las Vegas. Ihle borrowed a used Ford Escape for the move, because he’d recently sold his truck to buy more Legos.
Gambled everything on Las Vegas
“So we risked everything to come out to Las Vegas with some killer Lego art, and no business plan, no business cards, none of that stuff,” Ihle admits.
He didn’t have a website and wasn’t sure how to process a credit card payment.
“We just focused 100 percent on the art, and we’re gonna let it take us where it takes us. As long as we make our clients happy, we make them look good, we’ll figure all that other stuff out.”
That statue of Derek Stevens is on display in the Circa gallery, along with Lego versions of Golden Knights Marc-Andre Fleury and Mark Stone. If you’re inspired by what you see, Ihle and his team will make life-sized statues of you or your loved one.
“As far as we know, we’re the only ones doing this,” he says of the labor-intensive commissions, each of which he aims to have finished in about six weeks.
Prices start at $15,000 for what Ihle deems “a good-sized male.” Sculptures of women start at around $12,000, because they usually require fewer Legos.
“If we’re doing a dog, you know, I’m not real smart, so we just have two prices: big dogs and little dogs,” he says. “If your dog is somewhere in the middle, I don’t know, pay me what you want. You’re gonna love it.”
For reference, the big dog price is $5,500, while a little dog will run you $3,500.
“We have this motto: ‘If you’re awesome, we can build you,’ ” Ihle says. “If you’re not awesome, go do something awesome. But if you can’t do anything awesome, ask your mother, because she thinks you’re awesome.”