Chances are, you played with LEGO bricks as a child. But you probably never looked at them quite like Nathan Sawaya did.
“When I was about 10 years old, I asked my parents if I could get a pet dog, and when they didn’t get one for me, I created a life-size dog for myself out of LEGO bricks,” said Sawaya. “It was an early turning point in my art career.”
That art career for the 40-year-old former New York lawyer has led to his work being featured in museums and galleries around the globe. Sawaya’s latest exhibit, “IN PIECES,” a collaborative effort with photographer Dean West, will be on full display from Saturday through Aug. 17 at the Art & Culture Center of Hollywood.
“Using my sculptures and Dean’s photography, we created a highly stylized representation of contemporary life,” said Sawaya. “The project is a series of tableau compositions based upon ideas about society, culture and, specifically, identity. The images are large-format prints, with individual sculptures hidden within. Then nearby, the actual sculpture is displayed, which makes this particular collection immersive.”
To Sawaya, the universal appeal of the LEGO bricks lies in their timelessness, and their unlimited potential for imagination and creativity.
“I realized early on that I did not necessarily have to build what was on the front of the box,” he said. “I could use the LEGO bricks to create whatever I could imagine. If I wanted to pretend to be a rock star, I could build myself a guitar. If I wanted to pretend to be an astronaut, I could build myself a rocket ship. There were no limits.”
And no one had acted on the possible connection between LEGO and fine art before.
“When I first started creating art out of LEGO, it was unheard of,” he said. “No one else had taken this toy into art museums and galleries. So at first I was drawn to the challenge. I had sculpted with other media over the years, and one day I pulled out my old LEGO bricks and built a giant replica of my own face. It got a great reaction and I enjoyed making it, so I created more sculptures.”
Sawaya used to practice corporate law in New York City, and after the workday would need a creative outlet at home.
“Most nights I would find myself snapping LEGO bricks together even before I took off my suit or ate dinner,” he said. “It felt good after a long day of negotiating contracts to build something with my hands. Slowly but surely, my New York apartment started to fill up with sculptures. The artwork consumed almost every room.”
It didn’t take Sawaya long to realize he was onto something good, and began to post photos of the works on his website, www.brickartist.com.
“When my site crashed one day from too many hits, I realized it was time to leave the law firm and pursue my passion to become a full-time artist,” he said. “I quit my job as a lawyer, opened an art studio, and took the leap of faith.”
Some of Sawaya’s most famous works include a seven-foot replica of the Brooklyn Bridge, a re-creation of Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream,” and a 20-foot Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. He won’t name a favorite (“My favorite work is always the next one”), but acknowledges that his human form sculptures – titled “Red,” “Blue” and “Yellow,” the latter of which appeared in the video for Lady Gaga’s song “G.U.Y.” – were the most difficult to do.
“Fluid curves are the biggest challenge, but also the most awe-inspiring when they are completed,” he said. “Sometimes when I am building human forms, it can be difficult to get the proportions correct. It can be challenging to use these small rectangular bricks to form the curves of a human body.”
Upping the degree of difficulty exponentially is the fact that Sawaya always glues each brick as he goes, to make his sculptures permanent.
“On one particular project, I was building a large human hand, four feet tall,” he said. “I had worked on the project for over a week, but at a certain point I realized that the hand was not looking right. I ended up having to chisel away days’ worth of work so I could rebuild it with better proportions. You have to have a lot of patience for this job.”
Even with all the critical and commercial success he’s enjoyed, it took the honor of having a category dedicated to him on the “Jeopardy!” game show – “The LEGO Artistry of Nathan Sawaya” – for Sawaya to feel like he had truly “made it.”
“I have had multiple art exhibitions all over the world, and even artwork auctioned at Sotheby’s,” he said, “but it wasn’t until I was a category on “Jeopardy!” that my parents really were proud of me.”