For some, Legos are just small, plastic bricks that get sucked up in vacuums. To New York City-based artist Nathan Sawaya, they are his medium of choice.
Known as the Brick Artist, Sawaya re-discovered Legos after graduating from New York University School of Law.
“When I first started creating art out of Legos, it was unheard of,” Sawaya said. “No one else had taken this toy into art museums and galleries. At first I was drawn to the challenge. I had sculpted with other media over the years, and one day I just pulled out my old Lego bricks and build a giant replica of my own face. It got a great reaction and I enjoyed making it, so I created more sculptures.”
The artist’s history with Legos goes further back than law school. Growing up, he often thought outside the box of bricks.
“I had Lego bricks growing up,” he recalled. “When I was about ten years old, I asked my parents if I could get a pet dog, and when they did not get one for me, I created a life-size dog for myself out of Lego bricks. It was an early turning point in my art career. Lego bricks let me create anything I can imagine. They are a great medium for art because I can use them to build my ideas.”
Since venturing from law to art with a short stint at the Lego Company in between the transition, Sawaya has garnered international attention. His current show, “The Art of the Brick,” is featured in the U.S., Ireland and Belgium. Starting May 4, the exhibition will be featured at the Pensacola Museum of Art.
“I really enjoy seeing people’s reactions to my art for the first time,” Sawaya said. “Everyone has snapped a few Lego bricks together, so there is this familiarity that permits them to relate to my art on a different level. 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 on their own.”
When Sawaya began making art of out Legos, his intention was to make art accessible to everyone and perhaps inspire a few other artists out there.
“I wanted to take this simple childhood toy to a place it has never been before: into the contemporary art galleries and museums,” he said. “When people visit a museum, they can appreciate a marble statue, but most people don’t have a slab of marble at home they can chip away at. But a lot of people do have Legos. So my hope is that my art inspires people to go home and be creative.”
With the toy’s familiarity and the interactive nature of the exhibit, The Art of The Brick has been a big hit with children since it first debuted in 2007.
“Any exposure to art is going to get you thinking and [be] creative and expressive. I am proud of a lot of things I have accomplished as the only artist using this unusual medium, but I am the most proud of the fact that millions of kids have walked into art museums who might not have ever gone to a museum before,” Sawaya said. “They came to see Lego, but were exposed to the art world.”
Sawaya took his message of accessible art a little bit further by founding Art Revolution this year. The organization raises funds and awareness to put art supplies in kids’ hands and fund programs to that put art education back in American schools. Art Revolution also supports organizations with art therapy programs for the ill and elderly.
“Studies have found a very real tie between arts and education,” Sawaya said. “Schools with strong art programs tend to do better academically than those without. Art is a critical part of people’s lives. It is a necessity. If we are serious about improving education, then we need to be serious about the arts.”
Sawaya’s sculptures range from fruit to figures and even dinosaur bones. The artist is often commissioned to do specific pieces. Fans of late night TV might enjoy the Sawaya’s sculptures depicting Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert, which were showcased on their respective shows. Just a sidenote: a life-size figure typically has 15,000-25,000 Lego bricks.
When it comes to creating, inspiration comes from everywhere, the artist said.
“Many of my works center on the phenomena of how everyday life, people and raw emotion are intertwined,” Sawaya said. “Often my art is a reenactment of my personal feelings. I am inspired by my own experiences and the journeys I am taking. I also try and express my emotions through my art. With multiple exhibitions, I do travel a lot, so I also take inspiration from the different places I go and different people I meet.”
Even though Sawaya’s sculptures are whimsical, playful and essentially created from toys, his pieces are still art.
“Picasso once said ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up,’” Sawaya said. “For me, I play with toys all day, every day. And I call it work. I find it is important to have fun with my projects, even when the themes are more serious in nature and deeply emotional.”
As Lego has expanded to include franchise toy sets such as Harry Potter and Star Wars, not to mention amusement parks, video games and a wide-release film, those little primary colored bricks have come a long way since it launched in 1958.
“Even with all of the different types of Lego products, for my artwork I focus on using those same rectangular bricks that I had as a kid,” Sawaya said. “I appreciate the cleanliness of the 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.”
Right now, the artist has more than four million Lego bricks in his studio.
“I will probably stick with it for a while,” he said. “But you never know.”
THE ART OF THE BRICK
WHEN: Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. Exhibit opens to the public May 4.
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.
COST: $12 for adults $8 for children (Free Tuesdays are terminated during this exhibit)
BRICK ARTIST NATHAN SAWAYA
For previews on Sawaya’s art — LEGO or not — follow the artist on Instagram and Twitter @nathansawaya or visit brickartist.com.