Most of us toyed with Lego bricks at some point in our lives, and some of us may even snap a few together while playing with our kids, collect the toy maker’s creative boxed sets or play its Lego universe video games based on such franchises as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Batman and Lord of the Rings.
One man has actually built an impressive career based on Lego’s ubiquitous plastic building blocks in a truly unique way. Yet sculptor Nathan Sawaya is not a professional Lego brick builder – those talented people who create huge layouts and creations that you see at Legoland theme parks and stores around the world: he’s an artist. (And, get this, he’s also a practicing attorney.)
The NYU graduate started playing with the addictive, creative, colorful Danish bricks when he was a kid, and he never gave them up. He now has studios in Los Angeles and New York and four traveling shows, including “The Art of the Brick,” currently touring the globe and recently seen at the Commercial Exhibition Centre Taichung, in Taichung, Taiwan.
Sawaya has over 2.5 million Lego bricks at his fingertips in his studios and uses them for commissioned sculptures that he receives from around the world. When he’s working on life- and human-sized sculptures, he can invest two to three weeks of time and up to 25,000 bricks to bring a creation to life. He once built a 20′-long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.
Most recently, Sawaya partnered with artist Dean West to create “In Pieces,” a blend of “Where’s Waldo?” and those 3D paintings, in which half the fun is trying to find which item in the photograph is made of Lego bricks. Here, Sawaya explains how he makes his creations, brick by brick.
GEEK: How did you get into Lego building?
Sawaya: My grandmother bought me a set as a gift. I started immediately building right then and that’s something, in my childhood, I was very creative with. But then I grew up and realized that Lego bricks could be used as a real art medium for large-scale structures and I’ve made a career out of doing art using just Lego bricks.
What’s one of your favorite memories as a child playing with Legos?
When I was about 10 years old and I wanted to get a dog, my parents said you’re not getting a dog. So what did I do? I built myself a life-size Lego dog. That was the first time I really realized, “Wow, this toy can be more than just what’s on the front of the box. You can build whatever you want out of it.”
What was your big break that established your career as an artist?
I suppose it was in 2007, when I had my first solo show and I put on an exhibition of art. We didn’t really know what to expect and suddenly we were getting thousands of people through the door because they were drawn to this art medium and drawn to my art built out of something they were so familiar with. Soon it became very apparent that people can really relate to my artwork built out of this toy because they just connect with it. I’ve just taken it from there and I’m up to four exhibitions.
What makes your approach with the Lego bricks different from anything else?
I initially started out with the intention of trying to take Lego into a different direction — out of the toy store and into contemporary art galleries and museums. That’s been very successful, with four touring exhibitions around the globe. It keeps me constantly on the road — I’m in Singapore, New York, Taiwan, Los Angeles. It’s very exciting where Lego has gone with me. I’ve had fun with that. What’s next will be just to keep exploring. This collaboration, “In Pieces,” is a new project that I’ve been collaborating on with photographer Dean West for several years now. This is something where I’ve really tried to take Lego into different places, as well. Dean approached me about collaborating on a project where we can use my Lego sculptures integrated into his hyper-realistic photography and it’s taking Lego a little bit further and in a little bit of a different direction.
You actually appear in this new exhibit for the first time, right?
There are seven images in this series, “In Pieces,” and there’s different talent that we’ve used, different models. But we had an incident where one of our models was not going to be able to make it in time for the shoot and I just happened to fit into the costume, so I do make a Hitchcock appearance in one of the images.
Where did the inspiration come from?
This exhibit started about three years ago and really was a collaboration that has been a passion project of Dean and myself. The idea behind it is really about the construction of identity and exploring that theme. You look at these images and you see these people who have a very empty look about themselves, almost a little bit of misery in their faces, and we really tried to capture that in each different image. But we also used my Lego sculptures as part of it because these images are layered together, much like my sculptures are layered together brick by brick. There’s also a commentary on the modern photography techniques. When you look at my sculptures, they do have almost a pixelated look to them and that’s because I use little rectangles almost like little pixels to create these 3D sculptures. When we integrate it into the photography there is that pixelization of the Lego work. For some folks, it’s really a challenge to find where the Lego sculpture is in each image.
How do you look at the world?
I think I see the world in rectangles at this point because my art studio in New York is filled with a couple million bricks, so I’m always surrounded by Lego bricks and I do see the world in Lego.
What’s your typical day like?
I have a very easy job. Let’s face it: I get to play with Legos all day. My art studio is filled with millions of bricks and I just sit at my desk and start working. There’s a lot of design that goes into it, so there’s a lot of drawing out and sketching out ideas and then experimenting and getting to play and build. Eventually, the end result is doing an exhibition where people can walk around and really be surrounded by the art.
What’s your favorite Lego sculpture?
It’s tough to pick a favorite because I put my heart and soul into all of them. When people ask, I usually say, “the next one.”
Photos by Dean West & Nathan Sawaya