Nathan Sawaya: Around the world with Lego bricks

Nathan Sawaya’s art is currently on display in multiple continents at the same time. Just at the end of 2019, and till the first quarter of 2020, he has his work showing at the New York Hall of Science and the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the United States; at the Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion in Sao Paulo, Brazil; at the Great Northern Warehouse in Manchester, United Kingdom; and at the Tank Shanghai Museum in China.

This is, by no account, a mean feat. All of these ongoing shows are solo outings of Sawaya’s travelling exhibit, called The Art of The Brick. Though he’s experimented and worked with various media, including clay, wire, bottle caps, and candy, the artist, also known as the Brickartist, works with the popular toy company Lego’s building blocks.

Over the years, he has joined a small club of 14 global LEGO Certified Professionals — a handful of artists, programmers, architects, and animators who are not employed by LEGO but are “officially recognised” by the toy company due to the medium they have chosen to work with.

In 2011, CNN had named The Art of The Brick as one of the top 10 ‘Global Must-See Exhibitions’. Nine years later, and there seems to be no looking back for Sawaya, who was once a corporate lawyer with a practice in New York.

In conversation with MetroPlus, the artist talks about why he gave up Law for art, how travel keeps him creating, and the logistics of trans-continental shipping of artworks that are made of thousands of Lego bricks. Edited excerpts.

What has been your relationship with building bricks? When did it occur to you to work with LEGO?

Like most kids, I had LEGO bricks growing up. My parents were always encouraging creativity. One of the stories I write about in The Art of the Brick: A Life in LEGO [his autobiography, from No Starch Press] is that when I was 10 years old, I asked 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 a-ha moment when I realised that you didn’t have to build what was on the front of the box. I could let my imagination go.

It was later in life, when I was sculpting out of other media, that I thought about this childhood toy. I started experimenting with LEGO bricks as an art medium, and went from there.

How did you make the switch from law?

I used to practise corporate law in New York City. When I came home at night, I would need a creative outlet. Some nights I would draw, some nights I would paint, and some nights I would sculpt. One day I challenged myself to sculpt out of this toy from my childhood: LEGO bricks. I started doing large-scale sculptures. Most nights, I would find myself snapping LEGO bricks together even before I took off my suit or ate dinner. After a long day of negotiating contracts, it felt good to build something with my hands.

Slowly, my New York apartment started to fill up with sculptures. The artwork consumed almost every room. I posted photos on my website to showcase my artwork in a virtual gallery to friends and family. When my site crashed one day from too many hits, I realised it was time to leave the law firm and pursue my passion to become a full-time artist. I quit my job as a lawyer, opened an art studio, and took the leap of faith.

Nathan Sawaya: Around the world with Lego bricks

Your reinterpretations of famous paintings as LEGO sculptures connects with people of many generations — people come with their children, and both end up equally enthralled by your interpretations of famous works of art. Did you foresee this?

The series of works on art history were intended to be a way for adults to speak to kids about the art world. For example, how do you talk to a five-year-old about the Mona Lisa? By creating the works out of a medium that children are familiar with, it opens the door to the conversation.

Your original pieces comment on human nature and life, and sometimes engage with questions of philosophy. What inspires these?

A lot of pieces focus on events that happened in my own life and the emotions connected to those moments.

For example, a piece like Grasp depicts a full-size human figure pulling away from a wall of arms that are grasping at the figure and holding it back. The artwork was inspired by my own struggles when I was leaving the practice of law to become a full-time artist. At the time, I was surprised to find people in my life who were very negative about my decision to leave law. They told me I was crazy and making a mistake. I was frustrated and channelled those feelings into a new sculpture.

Do you create even as multiple shows are ongoing? How?

I am constantly working on new works of art. I think it is important to refresh The Art of The Brick when I can. But it can prove challenging with five different exhibitions on tour. Inspiration is a tough thing to define because it can come from different places. Fortunately, having multiple art exhibitions touring the globe, I get to travel around the world a lot. I get to meet different people, go to different locations and experience different cultures. And I use those moments for inspiration. I carry a sketch pad to jot down ideas as I go.

Edvard Munch’s Scream (1893), in Lego, by Nathan Sawaya

Edvard Munch’s Scream (1893), in Lego, by Nathan Sawaya

How long does it take to finish a medium-sized piece, and how do you get such an assembled piece ready to ship to different countries?

When I do find inspiration for a new work of art, there is a bit of planning. I want to be able to visualise 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.

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 can take me up to two to three weeks to complete. And I will use as many as 25,000 bricks.

What is the most number of Lego bricks you’ve used in a piece that is currently showing?

One of the largest works that I have created is a dinosaur skeleton [on show at the New York Hall of Science currently] that measures almost 20 feet long. I spent an entire summer working on it, and I used over 80,000 bricks. But over the course of my career, I have also built an entire life-size coffee shop out of LEGO bricks, which used almost 1 million bricks.

You also run Art Revolution for art education in schools. How many schools have you managed to impact and how? Do you plan for its efforts to go international too?

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. It has been proven time and again that students do better in schools when they are exposed to art as part of the curriculum. I want to inspire people to make art, so that they make a better world. Lofty? Sure, I know, but why not? So, a few years ago, I started the Art Revolution Foundation with that goal in mind. It has been a fantastic way to encourage more art and creativity in schools. This past year, we impacted nearly 85 [American] classrooms with over 2,500 students.

Other exhibits at the New York Hall of Science at 47-01 111th St, Corona, New York

Survival: The Exhibition, Through September 13, 2020.

This temporary exhibition is an interactive one that challenges visitors to become a survival expert. It features a zipline and ropes course, and museum displays that simulate extreme scenarios in an interactive and safe place for visitors of all ages to learn and test essential survival skills. Topics explored include first aid, water safety, navigation, fire and preparedness. $7 per person, plus NYSCI admission.

Science Playground, April – November 30, 2020, weather permitting.

The largest science playground in the United States, this features 60,000 square feet of exhibits for children of all ages. Slides, seesaws, climbing webs, a water play area, drums, mirrors, sand boxes and more allow kids to explore science by playing. $5 per person, plus general NYSCI admission.

Connected Worlds; ongoing.

This is a fully immersive, digitally rendered interactive experience where visitors explore the interconnectedness of different environments, and see how our individual and collective actions can have widespread impact. Through their gestures and movements, visitors interact with animated creatures, plants, trees, and other objects, and see how human decisions affect the environment. Free with NYSCI admission.


For more about his work and touring schedule:

The writer was in New York on the invitation of NYC & Company

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