Interview with LEGO® Artist Nathan Sawaya

October 24, 2017

LEGO® bricks have been used for decades by children and adults to create dazzling and playful buildings, vehicles, and unique works of art. In The Greatest Brick Builds: Amazing Creations in LEGO, these jaw-dropping creations are presented in full color, with close-up photos, scale representations, historical commentary on the structures, and details on how each model was constructed using LEGO bricks. With an introduction by Nathan Sawaya, the pioneer of LEGO building as an art, this book makes a great gift for the LEGO lover in your life.

Nathan Sawaya was born in Colville, Washington and raised in Veneta, Oregon. He attended New York University. Sawaya lives and works in Los Angeles. Since his first solo exhibition, Sawaya's artwork has grabbed the attention of art critics and pop culture novices alike. His artwork has been shown in major art institutions throughout the world, and held in the collection of both prominent private and public collections.

Sawaya was the first contemporary artist to ever take LEGO® into the art world as a medium. His work is obsessively and painstakingly crafted and is both beautiful and playful. Sawaya’s ability to transform LEGO bricks into something new, his devotion to scale and color perfection, the way he conceptualizes the action of the subject matter, enables him to elevate an ordinary toy to the status of fine art. His unique sculptures and renowned touring exhibition, THE ART OF THE BRICK®, continues to inspire creativity as well as break attendance records globally. 

Why did you leave your job as a corporate lawyer? Did you envision how successful you would be as an artist?

After I graduated from college, I did not have faith in my art for a full time career, so I became an attorney. When I was practicing law, I would come home from long days working at the firm in New York City, and I would need some sort of outlet. Some people go to the gym at the end of their day, but I found I needed a creative outlet. So I would draw or paint or write. Sometimes I even sculpted. And it was one day that I challenged myself to sculpt using this toy from my childhood. So I started experimenting with LEGO as an art medium. I put together a collection of sculptures and a website to showcase my own virtual gallery. Eventually I was getting commissioned to create works of art. And the day my website crashed from too many hits, I decided to make a change in my life. I left my day job behind to become a full time working artist.

It was scary, but also completely liberating. I was in control of my own destiny and the first morning I woke up after leaving the law firm was the beginning of what has turned out to be a truly thrilling adventure.

Why LEGO bricks?

There is something amazing about LEGO bricks when used to sculpt large forms because up close the viewer is looking at tiny rectangles with countless sharp corners and right angles. But then, when the viewer steps back, all those corners blend together and the sculpture’s shape comes into view. The right angles become curves, and instead of distinct lines, the viewer sees a human figure. As in life, it is all about perspective.

I also like using LEGO bricks because when used as a creative medium it makes the art very accessible. Families who may have never been to an art gallery are drawn to The Art of the Brick because of that familiarity with the toy.

Describe your creative process.

The creation of the sculptures take time and it all starts with the idea. The idea is the key component in developing the art. And the idea must be inspired. Inspiration is a tough thing to define, because it can come from different places. Fortunately, having multiple art exhibitions touring the globe, I get to travel around the world a lot. I meet different people, go to different locations and experience different cultures. And, I use those moments for inspiration. I carry a sketch pad to jot down ideas as I go. When I do find inspiration for a new work of art, I am excited to start planning. I like to plan out the sculpture as much as possible. I want to be able to visualize the final piece before I put down that first brick.

As I’m building I glue each brick together. Because we ship artwork all over the world, I found that it is important to glue all of the bricks together to survive the shipping process. Now because I am gluing the bricks, it means that I sometimes have to use a chisel and hammer to break the bricks apart if I make a mistake. This can make for a slow process. When I am working on a sculpture I spend 10-12 hours a day in my art studio. A life size human form sculpture can take me up to 2-3 weeks. When I finally complete a sculpture, I feel that same excitement that I did at first when I had the initial idea. But that quickly turns to thoughts about the next project.

How do you get all the LEGO bricks you need for one of your designs? Do you have LEGO bricks produced for specific projects or do you use stock LEGO bricks?

I buy my bricks just like everyone else. The difference is that I am a unique customer and buy hundreds of thousands of bricks every month. My art studio has over six million bricks in it, all organized by shape and color. I don’t have any specialized designed bricks produced for a specific project because when someone sees my artwork in an exhibition, if they are inspired, I want them to be able to go to their local toy store and buy the very same type of bricks that I used.

Your work has been shown in exhibits all over the world. How do people’s reactions differ in each country (South Africa, Singapore, USA, Taiwan, etc.) where your work has been shown?

Fortunately, the artwork has been received well worldwide. There is something universal about using LEGO bricks for my art medium. Around the globe, everyone has snapped a few bricks together at some point, so everyone can relate to my artwork. People can connect to the work on a different level because of that familiarity with the toy.

What is the largest sculpture that you have ever built?

I created a life size Batmobile that measures over 18 feet long. I used approximately half of a million bricks to create it. I have also built a replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that is over 20 feet long. It took me an entire summer to built it.

What has been the biggest highlight of your career so far? And what has been your lowest point?

My lowest point might have been when I was unhappy working as an attorney. But I don’t know if I can pick just one moment as my biggest highlight. I have found my passion and I am following my dreams. As an artist I have been able to travel the globe and meet folks from all walks of life. If I had stayed a lawyer, I don’t know if I would have got to do such amazing things as be a part of the Academy Awards, or be invited to the White House, or meet royalty, or even work with Lady Gaga. Overall, the worst day as an artist is still better than the best day as a lawyer.

You have been quoted as saying, "Art is not optional", please explain what you mean by this?

My role as an artist is to inspire. Throughout my own personal journey, I have learned that art is not optional. It’s not a nice to have, it’s a must have. When I was an attorney, I wasn’t happy, but creating art made me happy and I eventually changed my career to focus on making art. I’m not the only one who is positively impacted by exercising creativity. It has been proven time and time again that students do better in schools when they are exposed to art. Higher test scores and graduation rates are higher when art is part of the curriculum. And creating art is often used in many types of therapy and recovery. Creating art makes you happier. Creating art makes you smarter. Creating art makes you healthier. Clearly, creating art makes you a better person. I want to inspire people to make art, so that they make a better world. Lofty? Sure, I know, but why not?

You can find three of Nathan's most iconic pieces—Big Yellow, Batmobile, and Dinosaur Skeleton—as well as an introduction written by the artist himself in The Greatest Brick Builds: Amazing Creations in LEGO. 

Also included in this collection are the Golden Gate Bridge, the USS Missouri, the Great Sphinx of Giza, as well as other iconic structures created by LEGO builders from around the world.