Nathan Sawaya’s LEGO Sculptures – I See the World in Bricks
Nathan Sawaya is the first contemporary artist to bring LEGO, the world’s most popular toy, into the world of art as a means of expression. His works, made obsessively and meticulously, fascinate viewers for their beauty and playfulness. His ability to transform LEGO bricks into interesting figures, his devotion to scale, the perfection of color and the conceptualization of the action of matter allow him to elevate a basic toy to the status of art. Since his first solo exhibition, Sawaya’s works have attracted the attention of art critics and pop culture novices. His works have been exhibited in important art institutes around the world and hosted in the collections of important private and public collectors.
His unique sculptures and the famous traveling exhibit, “THE ART OF THE BRICK“, continue to inspire creativity and break global attendance records. Nathan Sawaya has received numerous awards and honors, recognizing his works of art and his cultural achievements. In 2014, with the belief that “Art is not optional“, Sawaya founded the “Art Revolution Foundation“, with the aim of making art a priority in our schools and homes. He has been a speaker at Google Zeitgeist, TEDx, Yahoo! and the Clinton Library. Sawaya attended New York University and worked as a corporate attorney in New York City before pursuing his dream of being an artist and working exclusively with LEGO.
Sawaya lives and works between her two studios in New York City and Los Angeles. Nathan Sawaya has conquered a prominent position in the world of contemporary art and created a new dimension by blending Pop Art and Surrealism in impressive and revolutionary ways. His art consists of playing with material, color, movement, light and perspective. Nathan Sawaya was born in Colville, Washington and grew up in Veneta, Oregon. He attended New York University. Since his first solo exhibition, Sawaya’s works of art have attracted the attention of art critics and pop culture enthusiasts.
Nathan stunned his colleagues when he quit his lawyer job to play LEGO full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama is a fan of him. Nathan Sawaya describes his favorite LEGO brick, with bright eyes and a smile at the thought. But he is not a child who proudly displays a beloved toy. He is a 43-year-old former corporate attorney and is over 6 feet tall. The brick he is evangelizing on is a small 1 × 2 socket plate with a pin in the center of its top. He calls it a “Jumper“. “Do you know LEGO jargon?” He asks, looking like he is in a breakdown when I shake my head.
“He has only one pivot instead of two and allows you to do even more details. But in general, I focus on rectangular pieces“. Sawaya is 1 of 40 (2020) LEGO Master Model Builders in the World, having quit his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to pursue full-time LEGO construction. His most striking works include a bust of a man tearing his chest with overturning bricks, called Yellow, a life-size T-Rex skeleton, a 2-meter-long model of the Brooklyn Bridge, and various replicas of famous paintings, including which the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.
His latest builds consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, including expressionless Supermen flying, realistically ruffling capes, and a life-sized Batmobile with shimmering batwings. Aside from his boyish enthusiasm, Sawaya himself resembles a comic book villain, a massive figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes, and thick dark hair. At the age of thirty, when he was a lawyer, he returned home after a hard day’s work and did something creative: drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and thread. He soon began experimenting with LEGO, building models from sets he had around the house.
His son, now 17, has never been particularly interested in playing it alone. “Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys”, he says beaming. His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous and his bosses confused, but it wasn’t long before Sawaya found success as a LEGO Artist. He has held exhibitions of his work on every continent except Antarctica and has won over some high profile fans. When he was president of the United States, Barack Obama posed for one of his installations of him, life-size monochrome men sitting on benches in Washington, and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.
“This is the magic of LEGO“, he says of its popularity. “In a sense it has become a universal language“. Sawaya’s Master Builder status means that he can buy all of his bricks directly from LEGO in bulk, which is impossible for us LEGO civilians. At first he bought sets in toy stores and on eBay, now he can send e-mails asking for 500,000 red 2 × 4 bricks, let’s say, and LEGO ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has 6 million bricks on hand in his Los Angeles studio. “Millions of all colors, shapes and sizes“, he says. “And they are all organized by shape and color“. He works for hours at a time in his study, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance“.
He creates designs on special “brick paper” such as graph paper, but sometimes builds freely from his imagination. “I often see the world in rectangles“, he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks. Just like kids do with LEGO sets, he just pops the bricks together, even as he dabs glue between the bricks, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic“, but he says that making a mistake can be “heartbreaking“, he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “Sometimes I can start questioning my choices in life”, he smiles. Sawaya faced the snobbishness of the art world when he started approaching galleries as a LEGO artist. “Oh, are they cars, trucks and little castles?”, was the answer.
He feels that it is now a more accepted medium. “It makes art accessible“, he says. And in doing so, he democratizes the world of art a little. It allows people to relate to art. Everyone popped a couple of bricks together at one point, every kid played a little bit with LEGO. “As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium that everyone knows? If someone sees a marble statue, he can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home, and it can crumble”. The first LEGO creation Sawaya remembers making was a playhouse when he was first given the toy at the age of 5. He then created a city that has grown to 10 square meters.
When he was 10, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he destroyed all of his buildings and made his own life-sized dog out of LEGO. “Of course it was very colorful and very nice”, he says. “But that was when I realized I didn’t have to build what I saw in the front of the box. It can be what I want“.