Nathan Sawaya, Brick Artist

Nathan Sawaya

Who is Nathan Sawaya?

If you’ve heard only one name in all of LEGO building, it is probably that of Nathan Sawaya. This well-known lawyer-turned “Brick Artist” has even had a category about his work on Jeopardy! He is covered regularly in various news outlets — the first time I heard of him was from a CNN article in 2007.

I’ve had the opportunity to exchange a few emails with Nathan and to meet him in person. (It really made my day at BrickWorld 2009 when he said he liked my piece, Wicked Smile.)

Last week, after getting back from a volcano-prolonged stay in Europe, Nathan took a few minutes  to answer some questions for BricksABillion.

You obviously build a lot of sculptures and things like that—but do you ever build the official sets or any MOCs on a smaller scale (you know, like the stuff that you typically see AFOLs building)?

NS: Besides creating my artwork, I do spend time building the occasional official set. In fact, I just purchased the new Grand Emporium set. I also enjoyed building the Death Star set. It’s fun to work on such detailed sets. I find the process a lot different from my artwork, in which I tend to focus on larger sculptures using just bricks rather than detailed elements.

For those who haven’t yet had a chance to see your stuff on tour can you give us an idea what scale you tend to build in for people scultpures … for example, Yellow, Red, Blue, as well as Circle Triangle Square—are these all “life size” or a bit smaller?

NS: Most of my human form sculptures are life-size, although I have done some larger than life, and some smaller. Currently, my favorite subject is the human form. I use the male human form to represent the everyman, society, you and me. A lot of my work suggests a figure in transition. It represents the metamorphoses I am experiencing in my own life.

The big red face sculpture you did—when I first saw it, I thought it was supposed to be one of the Kryptonian judges from the opening scenes of Superman (1978)—but after seeing photos from your Agora Gallery opening, it became obvious that it was a self portrait. Am I right? How do you go about building your face in brick in that scale?

NS: Well, as you know, Kryptonian art has been a major influence on me over the years. Oh wait, no. My sculpture ‘Facemask’ is an attempt at a larger than life self portrait. I focused on just the ‘mask’ of my face, so from the mid-level of the chin up to the mid-point on the forehead, and then from temple to temple. I did the entire sculpture out of red bricks. The idea is to capture myself at a moment in time. I had my girlfriend take several photos of my face from all angles.

I’m looking forward to Jonathan “Brick” Bender’s book coming out next month, LEGO: A Love Story, for which you built the cover.  It’s brilliant by the way.  How did that cover come about? How did you settle on the idea that ended up being the cover?

NS: The cover of the book came about from the publisher after many brainstorming sessions. We had discussed several ideas, but the publisher really liked a little LEGO book I had made years ago that sits on a shelf in my art studio. We decided to use a similar idea and have a LEGO figure reading a LEGO book. Rather than use a minifig, we decided to make it more artistic by having a fully formed LEGO person holding the book. I made the title of the book out of LEGO plates, and made it still readable so that it acts as the actual title on the cover. I even did the photography. [BB: Check out my interview with Jonathan Bender]

Book Cover for LEGO: A Love Story

LEGO: A Love Story

You’ve done a lot to help make LEGO art mainstream—the gallery tours, etc. Where do you see the use of LEGO as an art form moving in the future?

NS: I have some more ideas where LEGO bricks can go as an art form, and I hope to keep exploring those ideas. I have tried to take LEGO into places it normally isn’t found, and that is the fine art museums and galleries. But it doesn’t stop there. In the past year I have done a bunch of LEGO tagging throughout New York City. It is my form of brick graffiti where I attach a small brick man to sign posts and bike racks around the city. As for new projects, I am currently collaborating on a project with another artist. We are creating artwork which uses LEGO bricks in a way that I have never seen done before. You’ll have to wait and see what that is. Just keep checking my website.

LEGO Tagging by Nathan Sawaya - 1

What does a brick artist do in Europe for a week after being stranded by a volcano? Is there a LEGO volcano in your near future…

NS: Being stuck in Europe for several days had its good points. I took several trains and visited Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands. I even ate a hamburger in Hamburg. Amsterdam was a nice town to spend some time in. I visited a lot of art museums and found some inspiration (of course that was at the Heineken Brewery Tour). I had my sketch book with me and jotted down several ideas during this forced tour of Europe. I think people will be surprised at the art that might come out from a trip like this. It is not necessarily directly derivative of a volcano vacation.

BrickMagic is a new convention this year—one I’m really looking forward to since it’s only a few hours away for me. Can you give us your take on what you’ll be up to at BrickMagic?

NS: I am looking forward to being at BrickMagic this year. I think it will be a great event and a wonderful chance to interact with the public. I might even show off a sculpture or two.

Visit Nathan’s website,
Follow on Twitter @NathanSawaya

LEGO Tagging by Nathan Sawaya - 1