“Cracking Up” by Nathan Sawaya.
Los Angeles-based Lego artist Nathan Sawaya has built a second career out of the tiny, iconic bricks most of us remember fondly from childhood. Be it in the shape of the Statue of Liberty, Elvis, the Ninja Turtles, or the Batmobile, the former attorney creates awe-inspiring Lego art renditions of actual and fantastical figures. The sculptures really come alive in Sawaya’s work with the human form. Though they are hollow, the emotional weight of the pieces is palpable.
The primarily monochromatic color scheme in the human forms is on purpose: “If I make them look like a specific person, then it’s hard to picture yourself in that sculpture. I try to make it more universal,” he explains. And universal they have proven to be. Throughout the world, his work has been met with astounding approval. “The great thing about using Lego bricks is it’s almost an unspoken language,” Sawaya says. The one exception was at an exhibition in Africa, where he people who had never heard of Legos before. He showed them how the toys snapped together and they quickly understood the skill and patience required to pull off the life-sized sculptures.
The most challenging piece Sawaya has created thus far wasn’t human, however; it was in the shape of a Tyrannosaurs Rex skeleton. It took an entire summer to build the beast that used 80,000 bricks and measured over 20 feet long. “It was quite the engineering feat,” he says.
“Dino” by Nathan Sawaya.
The appeal of Legos for Sawaya is technical; an optical illusion of sorts. “When folks see my sculptures up close, they see all those sharp corners, those right angles. When you back away from it, all those corners blend into curves,” he says. “It’s kind of the magic of using Lego bricks.”
The only drawback of Legos? You can’t blend colors like paint. A yellow brick and a blue brick won’t ever be anything but yellow and blue. “You’re limited to the color palette that is produced by the Lego company, but I also like that challenge. It’s nice to have some limits,” the artist says. He doesn’t get any special blocks, either; everything he uses is available to the general public–which is part of what makes the artwork so accessible. Some of the people who attend his exhibitions are seeing an art show for the first time–many of them children–and they’re often inspired to try their own hand at Lego sculpting after seeing Sawaya’s work. (He knows because people send him photographs of their own creations, some of which he retweets on Twitter.)
“If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but when they go home that night, they rarely have a slab of marble in their living room,” he says. “But people have Lego bricks at home. So when they see my art, they come home and hopefully they’re inspired to create.”
It was only a decade or so ago that Sawaya worked as a corporate attorney on Wall Street. “I was not happy. To put it another way: I was miserable,” he says. Art was the way he took the edge off at the end of the day, be it in drawing, painting, or sculpting form. One day, it occurred to him to try sculpting with Legos. The reactions from friends and family about his first forays into Lego sculpture were positive, so he launched a website as a virtual gallery. Commissions started coming in. Still, Sawaya continued to work full-time as an attorney, often arriving home from the firm to face six hours’ worth of work on commissions. “When my website crashed from too many hits, I realized, ‘There’s something to this.’ I decided to leave the law firm behind and pursue a career playing with toys,” he says.
“Stairway” by Nathan Sawaya.
That career has taken off, and includes travel all over the world as he follows his simultaneous exhibitions. “That’s something I never would have dreamed of when I started this,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Sawaya has come a long way from his former life in New York, though his experience in law has been helpful in his new profession, albeit tangentially. “As an attorney, you are tasked with finding a way to solve certain problems. And of course there’s a lot of problem solving when it comes to creating certain sculptures and art,” he says.
Being an attorney also served as preparation for running a small business, especially when it comes to negotiating commissions, contracts, and venues for his exhibitions. And yet, there’s no threat of nostalgia luring him back to the law. “The worst day as an artist is still better than the best day as a lawyer,” he states. But what would happen if Legos suddenly disappeared from the market? With what would he sculpt then? “I have over five million bricks in my art studio right now,” he says. “Even if Lego disappeared, I could keep going for a few years.”