Flatiron District, New York
Nathan Sawaya calls himself a Brick Artist. The medium he has chosen to create large-scale 3D models and sculptures is the lowly LEGO brick toy, but he has definitively elevated it through his innovative work. Since leaving his job as a lawyer at Winston & Strawn to become a full-time artist, Sawaya has created some of the most recognizable LEGO art sculptures. These have included a 7 foot long replica of the Brooklyn Bridge, a life-size tyrannosaurus rex, and a 6 foot tall Han Solo frozen in carbonite. He has been featured on the Colbert Report, and currently has an exhibition of his work touring through Asia. We sat down with him a few days ago to talk all things brick.
You started out as a corporate lawyer. What prompted you to switch over to being a full-time artist?
The day my website crashed from too many hits was the day that I realized it was time to make a change. I was working full time in the Met Life building which is right there [opens up the window behind him and points]. I love this window because I can see where I used to work, but I can only see the “Life” part of it.
I had taken art classes in college, but didn’t really believe in art as a viable career –I just didn’t have faith in what I was doing. After college, I went to law school and started practicing, but I needed some sort of creative outlet – drawing, painting, sculpting, whatever. When I started in earnest on the sculpture, I was working full-time at the law firm too, so I’d put in a full day and then six or seven hours at night on my art as well, just creating commission work. When my website crashed after those crazy long days, that’s when I knew things could change permanently. I began with some sculptures out of clay –
Were they similar to the human forms you make today?
No, not exactly. One of my early works that got a lot of attention, which I still see posted on blogs every Valentine’s Day, was a large-scale, anatomically correct human heart out of Necco candy wafers. That was still additive sculpture, though: I was still using little pieces to make a larger form.
One day, I thought, “Why don’t I do something out of LEGO, this toy from my childhood? Can I do something in that realm?” I started doing small pieces and then friends and family encouraged me to do more. I put a website together, started getting commissions from the website, and that’s when I decided that my art was working.
How long after making the website did it crash?
About six months.
Why are most of the pieces monochromatic?
I want the viewer to be able to identify with the piece. I want them to be able to see themselves. The pieces in my exhibitions never are specific people because then you can only see that person. I’ve chosen to work with a monochromatic and idolized human form so it can be whoever you want it to be. If I tried to make my sculptures look like someone – even no one in particular – people would inevitably see someone. They will think, “Who’s that supposed to be?” I don’t want that.
What were the first sculptures you made out of LEGO?
The first thing I ever did was a self-portrait. I made a lot of accessible stuff. What I’ve learned is that with LEGO, most people want whatever their passion is built out of LEGO. People relate to it largely as a toy. So I ended up taking random commissions – for example, a friend of mine worked for major league baseball and asked me to do an entire major league baseball thing for him. Then it turned into, “Can you build me a slot machine, my grandchildren, a replica of my dog?” Eventually I got back to my own art. Today, I take a commission, and then I do one for myself.
Did you play with LEGOs as a child?
Yes, I had them as a child. My parents let me have a 36 square foot LEGO city – they were very accommodating. I grew up in rural Oregon, and the kid next door was still a mile away. LEGOs were my respite.
Were they something you put away after becoming a teenager?
LEGOs were always around – you know, I even had LEGO bricks at my dorm room in NYU. I don’t know if my roommates knew they were there, but they definitely were under my bed, just in case. It wasn’t that I was constantly building my entire life but I did have them, as a kind of security blanket.
Is there a tension between the medium as a toy and what you make?
Definitely. I like to push the image of the toy. That’s why there are so many skulls in this room: let’s use an image of death, let’s get as far away as we can from the toy. The reality is, however, most people think of it as a toy, and when they commission something, they want it to have a toy-like whimsical feel. So that’s why a lot of these things you see here – the crayons, the monkey behind me – are playful. They’re also all commissions. When I get to explore for myself, with the human forms, there’s more than whimsicality.
For example, when this piece [above] debuted, a woman started crying in front of. She no longer saw it as a toy but as art, as sculpture, as emotion. At that moment I was able to transcend the piece’s building blocks.
The lines in your work seem very fluid and curved but the pieces themselves are sharp and geometric – do you ever change the shape of the LEGO?
I don’t. I use the rectangular pieces. LEGO, as a toy, has all different shapes and sizes – there are tires, the people, windshields, everything – and that’s because it’s a toy and there are many for all the different sets. I focus on the rectangular pieces mainly because there’s a nostalgia thing going on but also because I think there’s something about it. I love the distinct lines, the very sharp corners, and when you see the brick up close obviously you see all those right angles, but as you step away the curves become evident. That’s where the magic of it all happens. You back away, see it from a different perspective, and suddenly the LEGOs are a human. That’s what I really enjoy about – it’s just like life: all about perspective.
How did you start making the Hug Man [available on Artsicle]?
Those! They have become very popular. The Hug Man started out as my form of street art that fit with my medium of choice. I played around with bunch of ideas and put them throughout New York, like gluing LEGOs to walls, etc. I settled on the Hug Man and I put it on park benches, sign posts, bicycle racks, places all over the city. They last a couple of days, max. I’ve actually been sitting in a café watching as someone ripped one off.
They don’t try to disassemble the Hug Man?
It depends - people take many different approaches. I glue the arms on, so sometimes people will rattle them, but in this particular case, it was rattle, rattle, YANK! Which is fine – the Hug Man is there to put a smile on people’s faces. I can put one in a park, sit back, and people will take pictures and pictures and pictures. It’s fun to see that happen.
When you’re making something, what is the journey from start to finish?
Obviously it all starts with the inspiration, as any artist will tell you. I carry my sketchbook around, and jot down ideas. As the process starts, I sketch a piece out on brick paper, which is like graph paper but instead of having squares there are little rectangles like LEGO bricks. A lot of the pieces you see here in my studio aren’t glued – this is because I create the piece first, make sure it looks okay, and then go back and make a second one that is glued. These days, I have more faith in my gluing and I glue as I go, though I’ve also gotten very handy with my chisel and hammer if I make a mistake.
I find that gluing is very important, mostly because of the shipping. Museums get very grumpy if they get a box full of pieces and sign that says, “Some assembly is required.”
Where are the LEGOs from?
I buy them, just like everyone else, but I have developed a good relationship with the LEGO company. I’m a very unique customer because I order by the hundreds of thousands, so at this point I can just shoot them an email, saying “Hey, I need a hundred thousand in red,” and they’ll send that over. I still have to pay for them – I think a lot of people think I’m sponsored by LEGO but I’m not. I’m just an independent artist – but, I do have access and a good relationship.
Do you ever work with in non-primary colors?
That would be great but there’s a limited LEGO spectrum. Because of the toy aspect, there’s a limited spectrum to which I can subscribe. The spectrum does present some challenges – there’s only so many colors. I never paint the bricks – I don’t use specialized bricks that the public can’t get because if someone goes to one of my exhibitions, and they’re inspired, I do want them to be able to go to the toy store and do the same thing. I only use standard LEGO bricks that you can buy.
The other thing is you may see a special LEGO piece, but they’ll only produce it in one specific shape and I need the full range of shapes to create a full size piece. There’s challenges with the coloring all the time, but I do love the limitations because it forces creativity.
When you’re making something, do you envision it as a whole or start from the bottom up?
I want to have a vision in my mind of the finished piece – things change, obviously, as I’m working, but I try to have a whole vision in mind and start from there. There’s also obviously gravity, so I do have to work bottom up mostly. There will be times when I go to different sections, like work on the eyes of a face, but I guess it just depends on the piece.
For some of the more spatially complex pieces, what do you find are the biggest challenges?
Making sure the piece all comes together in the end. I have to estimate the dimensions ahead of time, so there’s an engineering aspect to my work. My father is a civil engineer, so there may be something genetic going on there.
Can you tell me about your collaboration with Dean West?
This collaboration has taken over two, now approaching three years to come to fruition. It’s been a long and fun process because it has helped me explore different avenues. We came up with an idea that uses LEGO in a highly different manner, and incorporates my bricks in Dean’s very distinct photography style. The project is exciting because I haven’t seen LEGO used in this way before, and I’m happy to keep pushing the edge. The pieces are selling faster than we expected, which is great, but we haven’t even done a show yet. We are going to do a show of six of the pieces at the Columbus Museum of Art, but we would love to do a show and we haven’t even booked that and they pieces are selling already. What can you do? It’s a great problem to have. I can’t complain.
Right now I have four exhibitions touring. One is just about to open in Singapore and we were just in Taiwan. We also opened in St. Louis this weekend. They’re keeping me on the road a bit, so it’ll probably be a few months before I can just focus on being back in the studio.
Do you keep LEGOs with you?
It depends – not to play around, I usually sketch. I usually take a LEGO repair kit with me, with tools, LEGOs of all shapes and sizes, in case something comes up. I’ll usually have a Hug Man with me and leave it behind, wherever I go.