Q&A: LEGO Artist Nathan Sawaya on Building a Cool Career, Brick by Brick
In 2011, CNN named touring museum exhibit “The Art of the Brick” as one of its “top 10 must-see exhibitions in the world.” The display was primarily made up of new takes on classic artworks and renderings of the human form, but it was unique in a very notable way — the sculptures were made up entirely of LEGO bricks. The ubiquitous toys — possibly as famous for their theme park as they are for the unique pain they inflict on unsuspecting feet — were now the hottest new medium in the art world, thanks to one man: artist Nathan Sawaya.
In 2002, Nathan started building sculptures out of LEGOs in order to relieve some stress after his long days working as a corporate lawyer. Somewhere along the way, he decided to quit his day job and pursue his passion full-time; fourteen years and millions of LEGO bricks later, he’s still going strong, breaking down the barriers between work and play, and creating fine art out of a medium that was once reserved for children’s toy chests.
Nathan recently posted a picture of one of his latest works, currently on view at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, depicts a river scene full of brightly colored LEGO salmon. His caption? “Don’t be afraid to swim against the current.”
1. How do you define what you do? Give us your elevator pitch:
I am an artist that works with LEGO bricks, and the founder of “The Art of the Brick” global touring exhibition.
2. What does your average day look like?
I generally start my day in my art studio, where I am surrounded by over five million LEGO bricks, all sorted by shape and color. I usually have 2–3 different projects going on in the studio. I pick one, and then spend my days working on creating something, all while my dog sleeps at my feet.
3. What were you interested in as a child? How’d you spend your free time?
My parents were always encouraging my creativity, so as a child there were always creative toys around, like crayons, play-dough, and of course, LEGO bricks. They were so encouraging that they actually let me have a LEGO city in our living room that I could go and play in.
4. What did you study in school? How did you decide?
When I got out of undergraduate school was when I really had to decide what I wanted to do with my life. What does a young budding artist do when they graduate college? Of course, they go to law school.
5. How many years did you spend as a lawyer before you realized you were meant to follow a different path?
I worked at the law firm for several years before I really found my passion. I would come home from long days at the law firm and I would need a creative outlet. Sometimes it was drawing, sometimes painting, and sometimes sculpting. I originally sculpted out of more traditional media like clay and wire. I even did sculptures out of candy. But then one day, I challenged myself to create sculptures out of my childhood toy: LEGO bricks.
6. Taking that leap into pursuing art full-time couldn’t have been easy; walk us through the planning that occurred, and the moment that you decided to jump off the cliff.
Part of it had to do with my website, which was my virtual gallery at the time. I was posting photos of my LEGO artwork, and was receiving commissions for more. It was when my website crashed from too many hits that I realized it was time to make a change.
At the time, it was a tough decision, because I was going from a very secure lifestyle to a very insecure one. I really didn’t know how I would pay rent every month. But fortunately I had found my passion and decided to pursue it. These days, I think that for me, the worst day as an artist is still better than the best day as a lawyer.
7. We talk a lot about how people push through times of self-doubt or discouragement, and in the art world, I’m sure you face criticism all the time; how do you move past that?
Part of it is about pushing through the negativity that surrounds you. When I made the decision to leave the security and prestige of the law firm to essentially go play with toys, I had some friends tell me I was making a huge mistake. When you are making a big transition, you may find folks around you that can be very negative about your decision, but you need to cut that negativity out of your life in order to move forward. And when it comes to art criticism, that’s fine — it just means that your art is worthy of a critic’s time. Take that as a compliment, and forget the rest.
8. Talk to us about your decision to start the Art Revolution Foundation; why do you believe preserving art in our schools is so important?
I believe that art is not optional. It has been proven that kids do better with art in their curriculums; there are higher test scores and better graduation rates when students are exposed to art. So it’s not optional — it is necessary that there is art in our schools. Creating art makes people happier, smarter, and just better people, and I think it’s important for people to express their creativity. I’m not saying that people need to spend months on a giant LEGO sculpture. But a little art — maybe some finger-painting with their kids, or even just a bit of doodling or crafting — will make you a happier person. In the end, I hope my exhibition inspires people to create a little art in their lives.
9. What are some moments that you consider to be major milestones in your life story?
One of the stories I write about in The Art of the Brick: A Life in LEGO is that when I was ten years old, I asked for a dog; when I couldn’t get a dog, I built a life-sized dog out of LEGO bricks. That might have been the first “a-ha moment” when I realized that I didn’t have to build what was on the front of the box. There were no limits, and I didn’t have to follow the instructions.
10. Where do you get your inspiration?
Inspiration comes from so many places: At this point in my career, I am fortunate to have multiple touring “Art of the Brick” exhibitions, which means I get to travel around the globe quite a bit. I get to meet different people, visit different locations, and experience different cultures, all of which I then can use for inspiration.
11. Which artists do you look up to?
When I was deciding to make the transition from lawyer to artist, I was reading a book of Tom Friedman’s artwork. Friedman uses, among other media, household items to create fantastic sculptures. His work was very inspirational to me when it came to the possibilities of using LEGO bricks to create art. I’m also inspired by the work of Antony Gormley when it comes to human forms.
I also look up to a lot of artists that I have got the chance to work with. I have collaborated with a variety of artists over the years. I’ve worked with comic book artist, Jim Lee, to design a brand new Batmobile, which I then built life-size with almost half a million LEGO bricks. I have also collaborated with Lady Gaga to create artwork for her “G.U.Y.” music video. Another collaboration was with Australian photographer Dean West to incorporate my LEGO sculptures into his hyper-realistic photographs — that project explored the construction of identity.
12. What are you currently reading?
I just finished my friend Daphne Lamb’s new book, The Girl’s Guide to the Apocalypse.
13. If we handed you the keys to one of our green RVs right now, where would you drive?
To my studio.
14. How do you define the word “success”?
Success as an artist is inspiring someone else to be creative.
15. If you had to give one piece of advice to young adults or aspiring artists, it’d be:
Have patience. Things can take time, but don’t give up. Oh, and you don’t always have to follow the instructions.
16. What’s next for you?
I am working on something new, but you’ll have to wait and see!