Nathan Sawaya is an award-winning artist who creates awe-inspiring works of art out of some of the most unlikely things. His global touring exhibitions, THE ART OF THE BRICK, feature large-scale sculptures using only toy building blocks: LEGO® bricks to be exact. His work is obsessively and painstakingly crafted and is both beautiful and playful.
Previously a NYC corporate lawyer, Sawaya is the first artist to ever take LEGO into the art world and is the author of two best selling books. His unique exhibition is the first of its kind to focus exclusively on LEGO as an art medium and has broken attendance records around the globe. In 2014, with the belief that “art is not optional,” Sawaya founded The Art Revolution Foundation for the purpose of making art a priority in our schools and our homes.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
I was recently in Illuliasat, Greenland where I witnessed giant icebergs floating by in the bay. It was amazing to watch these beautiful natural formations glide by almost effortlessly. It was humbling to see this massive glacial floe simply drift out to sea. I was in awe.
As a child I was obsessed with LEGO (in fact my LEGO city display was so large I had to sleep underneath the table) and now as an adult I’m enjoying introducing my daughters to building. What are the ingredients that give LEGO such a universal appeal?
My attitude for art started when I was very young. My parents were always encouraging creativity, so my sister and I had a lot of creative toys growing up. We would paint with water colors, we would draw with crayons and we would make things out of clay. We also had other construction toys that allowed us to build things. But LEGO became a favorite toy because we could build anything we wanted.
One of the stories I write about in The Art of the Brick: A Life in LEGO is that when I was ten years old, I asked my parents for a dog, but when I couldn’t get a dog, I built a life-size dog out of LEGO bricks. That might have been the first light bulb moment when I realized that I didn’t have to build what was on the front of the box. I could use this toy to build anything I could imagine. If I wanted to pretend to be an astronaut, I could build my own space rocket. If I wanted to pretend to be a rock star, I could build my own guitar. There were no limits, and I didn’t have to follow the instructions. That realization, that there were no limits to this toy, is something that has made it universal.
Do you have a favourite commercially available LEGO set?
Not really. My favorite LEGO sets are from my childhood, like 6390 Main Street which was a whole neighborhood to explore. Or 497 Galaxy Explorer which was a spaceship that I would fly around my own neighborhood to explore.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Journey that led to you creating The Art of the Brick touring exhibition? What’s the appeal of using LEGO in your art?
After I graduated from college, I did not have faith in my art as a full time career, so I became an attorney. I found myself doing mergers and acquisitions for a law firm in New York City. It was not the most creative job, and it didn’t use very much imagination. After a long day at the office, many lawyers would go to the gym, others would go get a drink. But to blow of some steam, I found I needed a creative outlet. Sometimes I painted, sometimes I drew, and sometimes I sculpted. I sculpted out of various media. I even did a series of sculpture out of candy. But then one day I challenged myself to create sculpture out of this toy from my childhood, LEGO bricks. I just kept building after work and on the weekends. Building sculptures was my way of relaxing. Eventually my apartment was packed wall-to-wall with art. I put together a collection of sculptures on a website as a virtual gallery. Eventually I was getting commissioned to create works of art. And the day the website crashed from too many hits, I decided to make a change in my life. I left my day job behind to become a full time working artist. My colleagues were fairly supportive of me leaving, and maybe a bit jealous.
It was scary, but also completely liberating. I was in control of my own destiny and the first morning I woke up after leaving the law firm was the beginning of what has turned out to be a truly thrilling adventure.
I decided to become an artist that uses LEGO bricks for my medium because it makes the art very accessible. Families who may have never been to an art gallery are drawn to my exhibitions, THE ART OF THE BRICK, because of that familiarity with the toy. They can connect with the art on a different level because they have played with the toy before. It is about the democratizing of the art world. Creating art out of this medium opens up the doors to the art world for more people. If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but when they come, it is unlikely they will have a marble slab they can chip away at. But when kids see art made out of LEGO bricks, they can be inspired, and go home and create with their own bricks.
How do you go about creating a new sculpture?
The process to create these sculptures first starts with the idea. The idea is the key component in developing the art. And the idea must be inspired. When I do find inspiration for a new work of art, there is a bit of planning. I like to plan out the sculpture as much as possible. I want to be able to visualize the final piece before I put down that first brick. As I am building I do glue each brick together. Because we ship artwork all over the world, I found that it is important to glue all of the bricks together to survive the shipping process. Now because I am gluing the bricks, that means that I sometimes have to use a chisel and hammer to break the bricks apart if I make a mistake. This can make for a slow process. When I am working on a sculpture I spend 10-12 hours a day in my art studio. A life size human form sculpture can take me up to 2-3 weeks.
What are the challenges and opportunities of sculpting with plastic bricks?
There is something amazing about LEGO bricks when used to sculpt large forms because up close the viewer is looking at tiny rectangles full of sharp corners and right angles. But then, when the viewer steps back, all those corners blend together and the sculpture’s shape comes into view. The right angles become curves, and instead of distinct lines, the viewer sees a human figure. There is a symbolic element because as in life, it is all about perspective.
What are the practicalities of touring a show consisting of 100,000s of small bricks?
Fortunately, I have a fantastic team that coordinates all of the logistics of the exhibitions. There is a lot that goes into these shows, from the lighting, to the pedestals, to the crates, etc. Currently, I have five exhibitions on tour, which means I get to travel the globe a lot. I get to meet new people, visit new places, experience different cultures, and I use that for inspiration for new works.
Why is “art not optional”?
Throughout my own personal journey, I have learned that art is not optional. It’s not a nice to have, it’s a must have. When I was an attorney, I wasn’t happy, but creating art made me happy and I eventually changed my career to focus on making art. I’m not the only one who is positively impacted by exercising creativity. It has been proven time and time again that students do better in schools when they are exposed to art. Higher test scores and graduation rates result when art is part of the curriculum. And creating art is often used in many types of therapy and recovery. Creating art makes you happier. Creating art makes you smarter. Creating art makes you healthier. Clearly, creating art makes you a better person. I want to inspire people to make art, so that they make a better world. Lofty? Sure, I know, but why not?
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