Master Builder Nathan Sawaya and his 2.5 Million LEGO Bricks
The artist talks about his first LEGO set, his transition from lawyer to artist and just how he gets his brick-by-brick sculptures to look so lifelike
Since leaving a career as a corporate attorney in 2004 to pursue a full-time career as a LEGO brick artist, Nathan Sawaya has captured the attention of the world with his amazingly realistic creations. His current exhibit, The Art of the Brick, is on display at Discovery Times Square through Jan. 5 and includes blockbuster pieces such as a 20-foot-long T. rex dinosaur skeleton and Yellow, a sculpture of a man ripping his chest open with LEGO bricks pouring out. In our recent chat with Sawaya, he revealed how he got his start building the sculptures, what he likes most about his art, and how he avoids the age-old problem of stepping on all those pieces.
How old were you when you first started playing with LEGO bricks?
I got my first set when I was 5 years old. It was Christmas morning and it was from my grandparents, and I tore into this box that said “do not shake” on the tag. Lo and behold, I opened it up, and it was LEGO bricks, and I opened it up, started building, and pretty much avoided the rest of Christmas morning as I sat there creating.
Did you imagine at that point that you would grow up to become a noted LEGO artist?
No, I had very accommodating parents who encouraged creativity and let me build with LEGO [bricks], but they also encouraged all sorts of art forms as a child. I did have inclinations toward becoming some sort of artist, but I never, ever thought it would be out of LEGO bricks.
Because you then went on to go to NYU and become a lawyer, right?
Yeah, I came out of NYU undergrad and didn’t really have faith in my art and there were some societal pressures to go off and become a professional, so I went to law school and ended up practicing corporate law in New York City.
When did you first realize that you could make a career out of building things out of LEGO bricks?
I would come home from long days at the law firm and just start creating, not out of LEGO [bricks] but out of all sorts of things. Some people go to the gym at the end of the day, but for me it was sculpting or painting or something artistic, and eventually I picked up these bricks again from my childhood and challenged myself to do sculptures out of LEGO [bricks], and that just kind of took off. I put together a website, and I started getting commissions. I was working full days as a lawyer and full nights taking on projects from folks all over the world. When my website crashed from too many hits, I thought, “there’s really something to this,” I left the law firm to pursue art full-time.
How long did it take you to make that transition?
It was not immediate. It was a tough transition. I was in a secure place, with a paycheck, a six-figure salary, and health insurance, and I was going into a very bohemian lifestyle where I didn’t know whether I’d be able to pay my rent the next month. It was a weird transition.
How did your family and friends feel about that?
My family was supportive because I was following my passion, as were most of my friends. My bosses were a bit confused when I told them I was leaving the law firm to go play with toys, and I think my colleagues were a little bit jealous. I think you find out who your friends are, because I had people who thought I was crazy — and told me — who were very negative about it. I do talks and travel the country and tell people that you have to cut out the negativity and how you think of these people as your friends, but then maybe they’re not really your friends if they’re going to be so negative about your dreams.
How long did it take you after you made the transition before you had to stop worrying about how you were going to pay your rent?
I still worry about it. You never really know when you have “made it,” but it was never about a financial goal, and (for me) it would be very sad if it was. It has to be about being happy in my work. I did my first solo show in 2007. Now I have multiple exhibitions touring the globe, so it’s a lot going on, and I feel like things are moving, but I still have bigger goals.
Where do you get the ideas for your sculptures and what’s involved in making them?
Everything is by hand. A lot of people are surprised that I’m the only artist in my shop and I’m the only one who touches the bricks. I have a great team of people who help me with logistics, like moving things and crating them and shipping them all over the world and installations, but when it comes to the actual creation — it’s all my own work. The biggest part of the creation is the idea and the inspiration; it’s where it all begins. The best part is coming up with the ideas. I carry a sketchpad with me at all times to jot down ideas. Since I get travel all over the world I can feed off all cultures and people for inspiration.
Is there training you’ve had in architecture? How do you get such preciseness and detail in your renderings?
My father is an engineer, so perhaps there’s something genetic. But these large-scale sculptures require a lot of patience. They sometimes take me weeks or even months, and I do glue everything together. If I don’t like how something looks, even if I’ve worked on it for a while, I have to chisel away days or hours’ worth of work, which can be heartbreaking. But that’s part of the process. It takes a lot of planning and thinking about it, and it’s all really just a matter of experience and practice over time.
How are you able to achieve curves using only square bricks? Is it a conscious choice to use only square LEGO bricks?
The rectangular shape is part of the magic. There’s one part of the exhibition where there are a couple of apples sitting on the shelf, and we included them because I created them very early on in my career. It was essentially just a challenge of how to take rectangular pieces and create curves. It was one of the most important things to do, how to create a sphere because you understand quickly that it’s a stair step and it depends on how quickly you go over or up, and once you get the sphere it’s the first step into an entirely new world. And I was really just trying at that point to see if I could make sculptures of things I saw in my apartment: Could I make a baseball? Yes. OK, now could I do an apple, which is kind of like a baseball but with a little more shape to it? OK, now could I do a football which is round but pointy at both ends?
So basically you taught yourself this by looking at things and figuring out how to make approximations of them with LEGO bricks?
That was an important part. A lot of my early work was very representational. And then it goes from there. In the exhibition we have an apple the size of a basketball. But once I figured out how to do an apple life-sized, then larger-sized, then I was doing things like 8-foot-tall pencils, experimenting like that.
Over the years, then, has your art changed from concrete things to more abstract? Gotten bigger? How have things changed?
What I eventually got into was putting emotion into the art and using human forms to express what I was feeling, and that’s when it entered into the art world at a different level. When I started working with galleries years ago they laughed at me, saying, “uh, you create art out of LEGO [bricks]?” and expected to see things like cars and trucks because that’s what they saw at the toy store. So it took a while to convince people it was more than cars and trucks and castles — that I was taking a toy and using it as an art form, as an entirely new medium. I think the biggest compliment I ever got was when I debuted a piece in New York and a woman started crying when she saw it because of the emotion of the sculpture. She no longer saw it as a toy, but as an actual art piece.
I know you travel all over the world with your art. Are LEGO bricks as universal of a language as they seem?
Absolutely. I’ve met folks who had never seen LEGO [bricks] before in South Africa, gave them some loose bricks, they snapped them together, and said, “aha!” It is universal, and it transcends all languages. I was working with kids in Shanghai who spoke no English, and I speak no Chinese, and we were still able to make art together.
What’s your favorite part about building LEGO sculptures? Is it the planning, the completion or the process of building itself?
My goal is always to inspire. My whole idea with this exhibition in New York — and all of the exhibitions — is to inspire folks to explore their own creativity. So at the end of the day I hope people can do a little doodling, snap some bricks together, something to make them a happier person, a better person. So if I can encourage people to be more creative, I’ve done my job. For me, the best part of it all is seeing other people get inspired by my work.
Do you have a studio space for your bricks, or do you have them all over your apartment (and, if so, how do you avoid stepping on them)?
I have a couple of studio spaces, a massive studio in L.A. and a smaller studio in New York. But after doing this for years, I don’t even feel it when I step on them.
How many bricks do you have in your studio at any given time?
About 2.5 million.
In addition to LEGO bricks being a universal thing around the world, they’re also not limited by age. Do you think that helped your friends and family be more accepting of your art?
Absolutely. The great thing about using a medium like LEGO [bricks] is that everyone knows it and relates to it, even adults connect to the toy so well. In this exhibition in New York, a lot of folks come through who don’t even have kids. One of the main draws is for date night! Couples come through, and I think it’s one of those unique things because kids will love it for the toy aspect, but there’s also the art aspect for adults.
Did you ever imagine you’d make a living playing with LEGO bricks?
There was a time when I thought I wanted to design LEGO sets, but it was never really a real pursuit. Still, it’s kind of a dream come true because I had the toy as a kid and played with the LEGO bricks all the time, and to still be able to do that is not a bad job.
What advice would you give to kids who want to pursue a creative career?
Be a bit realistic. I want you to follow your passion. If your passion is to be a rock star, that’s awesome. But before you quit that day job, make sure you’ve taken a guitar lesson. Don’t just up and quit. You have to prepare for this. You have to practice and make sure you have the skills before you take that leap of faith.
You grew up in the Pacific Northwest but now make your home in New York City. What is it like to have your work shown in Times Square, where thousands of people from the city and all over the world see your sculptures?
What a dream come true! Never in my life did I imagine I would have a billboard in Times Square. When I saw that for the first time, I flipped out. I never ever dreamt of it, actually. Who knew?
Do you have any plans for what you’ll do next after The Art of the Brick?
The exhibit will be going to Shanghai, Belgium, and all points beyond, and then I’ll be announcing some other exciting things on Twitter (@NathanSawaya) and Instagram (instagram.com/nathansawaya), so make sure to follow me there.
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