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Nathan Sawaya Showcased His LEGO Bricks at the San Diego Fleet Center

Written By: Jordan Ligons Nathan Sawaya LEGO Artist
Photography Provided By: San Diego Fleet Science Center Nathan Sawaya LEGO Artist

At a young age, LEGO bricks are used as tools for creativity. Stacking, clicking, and snapping the vibrantly colored bricks with the array of lengths, shapes, and heights were used to tell stories; you felt as if you could create anything. Artist Nathan Sawaya feels the same, so much so that he dropped his NYC lawyer career and chose to pursue his passion—creating LEGO art. And he’s pretty great at it too. CNN has named The Art of the Brick a must-see top 10 global exhibit. His art has been on display around the world like Brazil, China, Germany, Australia, Spain—the list goes on. If you didn’t get the chance to witness his brilliance at The San Diego Fleet Science Center Sept. 30 through Jan. 29, lookout for his next stop nearest you. Read on to learn more about Sawaya’s beginnings and what was his first masterpiece (Hint: It was his first pet).

Q: What inspired you to work with LEGO bricks?

Nathan Sawaya: I like using LEGO bricks as an art medium because of the countless possibilities and the endless ideas that can be created from this toy.

As an artist, I want to elevate LEGO to a place it has never been before, which is into the fine art galleries and museums, and continue to push its boundaries outside of a simple toy and construction tool. I appreciate the cleanliness of the LEGO brick; the right angles, the distinct lines. As so often in life, it is a matter of perspective. Up close, the shape of the brick is distinctive. But from a distance, those right angles and distinct lines change to curves. That is what drew me to the brick.

In addition, I enjoy seeing people’s reactions to artwork created from something with which they are familiar. Everyone can relate to it since it is a toy that many children have at home. But it is more than that. My favorite thing about using LEGO bricks is seeing someone be inspired by my artwork to go and pick up a few bricks and start creating something new on their own.

Q: How long does a typical art piece take to build?

NS: The amount of time spent on a sculpture depends on the size and complexity of the piece. A sculpture of a life size human form can take up to 2-3 weeks. Sometimes longer, for example, when I was working on the piece YELLOW, which depicts a human torso pulling its chest open while thousands of bricks spill out, I spent over three months on it. The goal was to really spend time to get it right, to make sure the curvature of the muscle definition and the facial features evoked the emotion I was driving for.

Q: Walk us through the process of how one of your masterpieces are made. What’s your first step?

NS: It all starts with an idea. And finding that idea can be the most difficult part. Fortunately I have multiple exhibitions touring the globe so I get to travel quite a lot. We’ve been to over 80 cities, numerous countries and six continents in the last ten years. This allows me to visit fascinating locations, meet a wide array people and experience different cultures. I can then use those experiences for inspiration for creating new works. I try to always carry a sketchpad with me when I’m traveling so I can jot down ideas as they come to me. Once I have an idea, the next step is creating a plan to execute the sculpture. I want to envision the final piece before I put down that first brick. As I am building with the bricks, I am actually gluing the bricks together as I go. It is a slow process. You need a bit of patience for this job. If I make a mistake after it’s glued together I have to use a hammer and chisel to break it apart.

Q: What can guests expect from attending your exhibition in San Diego? Does this exhibit differ from others from around the world?

NS: This exhibition has a broad selection of my artwork from the course of my career. There are some very early works, which are quite representational, like a giant pencil out of thousands of LEGO bricks. There are also some more surreal works of human forms, like a life size figure pulling away from multiple arms reaching for him. Some of the works convey certain emotions but there is also a bit of whimsy in the exhibition. Overall there is something for the whole family.

Q: How does it feel to have your work labeled one of the Top 10 “Must See Global Exhibitions”?

NS: It is humbling that so many people all around the world enjoy the exhibition.

Q: I saw President Obama chatting it up with one of your art pieces at The White House! What was it like to have your art showcased at the South By South Lawn?

NS: It was quite an honor to be invited. And having a chance to speak with other artists, such as Chuck Close, at the event, was very special. Not to mention having an opportunity to talk to the President about the importance of art and making art accessible.

Q: What’s next for The Art of the Brick? What are your goals?

NS: With my art, the goal is to inspire. I used to be a lawyer in New York City. I walked away to pursue something that would make me happier. So my hope is that after seeing The Art of the Brick, visitors are inspired not just to try their own hand at creativity – be it making clay pots, finger-painting with the kids, or maybe even sculpting out of LEGO bricks – but also to have the courage to dream big, take chances and to bet on themselves a little bit more.

As for my personal goals, I recently published my first memoir. It was a cathartic experience for me. Who knows, maybe I’ll pen another book….I’ve got some ideas.

Q: What is your most elaborate piece to date?

NS: The most elaborate sculpture in this exhibition is likely the replica of the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. It measures over twenty feet long and it took me an entire summer to build it. It was quite the engineering challenge.

Speed Round

Favorite place to travel:

Favorite music to listen to while creating a piece:
I’m a child of the 1980s, so ‘80s pop.

Favorite memory with one of your art pieces:
It might be when I debuted a piece called My Boy and a woman started crying upon seeing it. She was no longer seeing the work for just a child’s toy, but seeing the emotion within.

Favorite thing to build with LEGO bricks when you were a kid:
When I was very young and I wanted to get a dog, and my parents said I was not getting a dog, I built myself my very own life size dog out of LEGO bricks.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
A Chef
The Art of Brick Showcased at the San Diego Fleet Center This Winter Nathan Sawaya LEGO Artist