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The Love Of Lego: 5 Questions With Brick Artist Nathan Sawaya

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Nathan Sawaya works on a Lego sculpture in his studio. (Photo courtesy of brickartist.com)
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By Mariela Patron

New York-based brick artist Nathan Sawaya astonishes children and adults alike with his exhibit The Art of the Brick, in which he exceeds expectations of Lego creations. His exhibit first debuted in 2007 and consists of 30 pieces, including portraits, landmarks and life-size human sculptures. The Art of the Brick has caught worldwide attention and was named one of the top 12 "must-see exhibitions in the world" by CNN. Lucky for Los Angelenos, the exhibit is currently on display at Forest Lawn Museum.

Today, Sawaya owns up to 2.5 million Lego bricks and brings his art to museums and galleries around the world. His craft has landed him appearances on The Today Show, Late Night with David Letterman, The Colbert Report and CBS Sunday Morning.

LAist caught up with Sawaya to learn more about his creative process, inspiration and other Lego projects he has coming up.

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LAist: What made you pick up Legos as an adult and inspire you to create sculptures with them at such a large scale?

Nathan Sawaya: I used to practice corporate law in New York City. When I came home at night I would need a creative outlet. Some nights I would draw, some nights I would paint and some nights I would sculpt. One day I challenged myself to sculpt out of this toy from my childhood: LEGO bricks. I started doing large scale sculptures out of LEGO. Most nights I would find myself snapping LEGO bricks together even before I took off my suit or ate dinner. 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. I posted photos of the works on my website to showcase my artwork in a virtual gallery to friends and family. 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. I quit my job as a lawyer, opened an art studio and took the leap of faith.

I like using LEGO bricks because they let me create anything I can imagine. They are a great medium for art because I can use them to build my ideas.

As an artist, I wanted to elevate this simple childhood toy to a place it has never been before: into the fine art galleries and museums. I appreciate the cleanliness of the LEGO 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.

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I like using the bricks as a medium because I enjoy seeing people's reactions to artwork created from something with which they are familiar. Everyone can relate to it since it is a toy that many children have at home. But it is more than that. 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.

What is your process for creating the sculptures and portraits?

It starts with inspiration. Many of my works center on the phenomena of how everyday life, people and raw emotion are intertwined. Often my art is a reenactment of my personal feelings. I am inspired by my own experiences, emotions and the journeys I am taking. I also try and express my emotions through my art. I want my art to captivate people for as long as it can keep their attention.

Once I am inspired I draw out my idea. I am always carrying my sketch pad so that I can draw out my ideas as they come to me. Before I start building, I try and plan out as much as possible. I want to envision in my mind what the finished sculpture will look like before I put down that first brick. As I start building, I actually glue the bricks together as I go. This involves painting a little bit of glue on each and every brick. If I make a mistake, well, I'm good with a hammer and chisel. Once the sculpture looks the way I had envisioned it, I know that I'm done.

What is the biggest challenge you face when building sculptures out of Legos?

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Being a full-time artist with working art studios on both coasts is more like running a business than being an artist. One is logical and precise. The other is creative and risky. There is definitely an art to being an artist. Especially if you want to pay rent.

Is there a specific piece you are most proud of?

It is difficult to choose a favorite. I am most excited about the next one I am working on, but you will have to wait and see what that will be. I think the most iconic sculpture in the exhibition is a piece titled "Yellow," which depicts a human figure tearing his chest open while thousands of yellow LEGO bricks spill out around him. This piece really resonates with people. It has become part of pop culture. People really relate to the messages of opening oneself up to the world, while also appreciating the inner struggle of the figure. When people see "Yellow" in person for the first time, they often have a strong reaction to it. And many of those people also ask me how they can get their own version, so that is why I have set up the LEGO Cuusoo page. If it receives 10,000 supporters, then LEGO will begin the process of making it into a real kit.

What are you hoping to accomplish with your LEGO art?

I want to inspire others. After years of touring my art exhibition, The Art of the Brick, to all parts of the globe, I have come to the conclusion that creating art is a necessary part of everyone's life. Just taking some time out of your day to create will make you a happier, better person. I hope that when people see my artwork in such an accessible form, they are inspired to go home and create something on their own.

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The Art of the Brick is on display at Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale through July 21, Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission and parking are free.

Previously:
Photos: New Must-See Lego Exhibit Builds 'The Art Of The Brick'