Pop Culture, Internal Angst, and the LEGO Art of Nathan Sawaya: Interview with The Brick Artist
Imagine a place constructed entirely out of Legos, where culture, people, and architecture are comprised out of little colorful blocks meticulously snapped together by some mad creator. This creator’s name is Nathan Sawaya and he is the world’s first artist to use the iconic toy for building representational as well as conceptual three-dimensional sculptures. His critically-acclaimed traveling exhibitions, The Art of The Brick, officially introduced Legos as a legitimate medium to the art world.
Sawaya was born in Colville, Washington, but moved to rural Veneta, Oregon, when he was fairly young. He received his first Lego set when he was five years old. “I had a younger sister and often my Lego figures would interact with her Barbie dolls,” he recalls. “Growing up in a rural environment like that meant that there wasn’t another kid next door. There wasn’t another house for a half a mile.” So the siblings played together, with lots of support from and occasional involvement of their parents.
Eventually, Sawaya moved to the Big Apple, where he attended New York University as an undergrad and then again for law school. Unknown to his roommates, he kept a Lego set hidden under the bed, although he claims he didn’t use it. After graduating, Sawaya began to practicing corporate law, which failed to provide him with the kind of satisfaction he craved as a creative person. So, he dug out his Lego set and began building sculptures for fun.
Once people started to notice his work, Sawaya was able to quit his job and make Lego art his full time occupation. Soon, the hobby he’s nurtured since childhood would turn him into a cultural icon. Today, Sawaya is a critically acclaimed artist, entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker. Believing that "art is not optional," Sawaya also started The Art Revolution Foundation in 2014, which aims to make art programs a standard part of the school curriculum.
To date, some of his most recognizable works include a collection of surrealistic human forms, a life-size skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex comprised out of 80,020 pieces, and a redesigned to scale model of a 1500 pound Batmobile that measures over 18 feet long and 7 feet wide, amongst a number of other sculptures.
To learn more about the structured art of Nathan Sawaya, ARTpublika Magazine caught up with the celebrated artist and only person to simultaneously hold the LEGO Master Builder and LEGO Certified Professional titles in the world.
What first sparked your interest in Legos?
My parents were very good about having creative toys around the house. You know, anything to create with — that was a common theme. They let me build a Lego city in our living room that grew to about 36 square feet. We kept it behind the couch, and it was my respite.
What else did you like to do when you were young?
Let’s see. I played soccer. I played little league. I ran track, a lot. And, I was involved with the Student Council. But, mostly I was a stay at home kid — I liked to draw.
Did school nurture your building interests?
I had a high school science teacher who was very good at making projects interactive and would take the whole class on overnight field trips. One summer I worked with him and some other student at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology; we were reconstructing the skeleton of a dead California sea lion that had washed up. We took it, stripped it of all its blubber and skin, and boiled down the bones. [Then] we reconstructed them into an accurate skeleton for educational use. [Years later] I created a giant dinosaur skeleton out of Lego bricks. It all ties together.
What appeals to you about constructing or reconstructing something?
The step by step process. It takes plenty of time, but seeing progress being made appeals to me. I can go to some dark places when I’m working on projects, where I not only question the project or the look or aesthetic of that particular piece, but I start questioning all of my life choices. Seeing each added block helps me push the process forward mentally as well as physically.
Where do your ideas come from?
When I started out, [my work was very] representational; it was what I saw from my apartment and walking around the city. I saw the Brooklyn Bridge, so I built the Brooklyn Bridge. I was just learning how to hone my skills.
After my first solo exhibition, which [featured] about 200 pieces, I was blown away by the number of families with kids that came to see it, including those who have never stepped into an art museum before. They were curious about art made out of a medium they were so familiar with. So, I wanted to do something for all those kids who were just discovering art and coming to the museum for the first time. I thought about what kids love, and kids love dinosaurs. So, I spent an entire summer building a T-rex.
But, a lot of the time, the inspiration comes from personal emotion. If you look at some of the surreal stuff I’ve done with the human form, that’s just internal angst being shared in a physical way.
What’s your favorite piece that you’ve made thus far?
I haven’t made it yet, but I’m sure it’s coming. But, there’s a piece called “Yellow.” It’s a life size figure with its chest open; thousands of yellow Lego bricks are spilling out of its torso. It has become one of the most iconic works that I’ve done. So it’s kind of cool — to be recognized for that piece all over the world. That’s become something special.
Didn’t you work at Lego for six months?
Lego had a contest to find the best builder in America, and I won that contest. So, I was rewarded with a job. I was there for a few months and realized, very quickly, that it was a great opportunity with great people, but it was not for me. Here I was working at my dream job — surrounded by this toy, with unlimited resources — but when it came down to creating actual work, it was very mundane. I wanted to pick and choose my projects, so I left. It was risky, but it became the right choice.
After leaving Lego, you opened up your own studio in 2004. Your solo art exhibit at the Lancaster Museum of Art opened in the spring of 2007, what happened during those 3 years?
When I was trying to establish myself, it came down to building a website with a virtual gallery and taking on commission work. Every month I thought it would be the last month I could pay rent and then I’d have to get a real job, but something would come in. Once I had a request: “Hey, could you build a boat?” I ended up going to the Seattle speedboat show and building a life size speedboat over the course of two weeks. Taking on projects like that would pay a couple of months rent, so I kept going. But, whenever there was downtime, I would create for myself. So, the show that happened a few years later was really made up of all those pieces that I had been doing for myself over the years, and the commissioned work essentially paid for creating that.
Did Lego help you in any way?
Lego Group and I have a good relationship, but it is a business relationship. I buy all my bricks just like everyone else, but I’m a unique customer.
Legos are a pop culture icon. Are are you fan of pop culture generally?
I consume pop culture as much as anyone. One of the fun things about working with Lego bricks is the ability to represent pop culture in one way or another. I got to work with Stephen Colbert and Lady Gaga, I got to work on the Academy Awards. I would have never believed that I would have opportunities like that.
What did you build for the Academy Awards?
In 2015 The Lego Movie was nominated for Best Song, the song is “Everything is Awesome.” I was actually contacted by the directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord, and we came up with the idea of creating Lego Oscars. So, during the performance of the song, all of the dancers went out into the audience and handed them out. It was fun because people like Oprah Winfrey, Emma Stone, and Steve Carell received Lego Oscars during the show.
What are some of the most interesting commissions you’ve ever gotten?
I’ve received some very interesting commissions. One of the ones I haven’t taken on is a coffin for a chiwawa. I did take on building a working air conditioning unit; not a small one like the kind you put into the living room unit, but an industrial one. I was contacted by a large air conditioning company to make a functioning life size replica of one of their biggest units using motorized lego components.
Just recently I was asked to do one for Justin Willman, the magician. You can see it on [the show, Magic for Humans, on] Netflix. First Willman is seen standing [at my exhibition with a sheet, which he then raises in front of him.] When he drops the sheet, there’s a Lego version [of him standing there instead.] I don’t know how he did it, he’s a wizard. But, the point is, I had to build him life size out of Lego bricks. That was an interesting commission.
What’s are the challenges of working with Lego bricks?
When I did a series replicating famous works of art out of Legos, I tried to see as many of those pieces in real life as I could. I did it for personal reasons, but also to see the color. Working with Legos is interesting when it comes to color, because it’s not like [working with] paint. If I take a blue brick and a yellow brick and snap them together, that doesn’t make a green brick. [My color pallet] is set in a certain way. So, I think the biggest challenge involved in replicating something that already exists is this pressure to make it look as realistic as possible, especially with works of art that are known the world over.
What’s it like to create an art career out what is arguably the most popular toy in the world?
Of course I’ve had critics and people question my use of this medium, but it is what it is. I can’t really worry about what the critics or the art world thinks. Some people [may] see the words Lego Art and think “I’ve seen that at Target,” but that’s just part of the process.
Out of the people who come to see your exhibits, whose opinions do you value more, the adults or the kids?
I don’t know, that’s interesting. I’ve never really thought of the difference, I just want everyone to walk away inspired. The kids, to their credit, immediately want to grab their own bricks and create. When they see a sculpture like the T-rex, they are in awe. That’s the general reaction. Adults have a different reaction. They’re usually more taken with the messaging or emotions behind certain sculptures. But, that’s also mixed, because you have some adults who react to the actual structural work that went into the sculptures, while others focus on what they say emotionally.
Can you talk about the physical stress of working with small objects?
My hands hurt a lot, they get cut up quite a bit. When I work on a sculpture, I will glue the individual bricks together, so that when I ship sculptures around the world, they arrive in one piece. What that means is: 1) It’s a slow process 2) If I make a mistake, and I have done that many times, I have to get out a hammer and chisel them apart. I’ve had steroid injections because of how painful it could be at times. But, my hands are my most important tool.
Who are your favorite artists?
I like Tom Friedman, the sculptor. When I was trying to decide if there was a future doing this, I read an article about him and how he would use plastic cups to make these intricate works of art. It just touched me. He’s been someone I always looked up to.
I got to collaborate with Jim Lee, who is a famous comic book artist and Co-Publisher of DC Entertainment. We collaborated on designing a brand new Batmobile and then I actually built it out of Lego bricks, life size. Back to my nerdy roots, one of the characters I identify with more than others would be Bunker, who is from the DC Universe, he uses his mind to manipulate small little blocks. How about that, eh? Ah!
Note* Photos are credit of The Brick Artist, Nathan Sawaya