Q&A: LEGO Artist Nathan Sawaya

March 06, 2013 | by —SIMONA RABINOVITCH | Homepage

“Some people go to the gym at the end of the day, but I would need to do something creative,” says artist Nathan Sawaya of his original impulse to create sculptures out of his favorite childhood toy, LEGOs. After he put images of his work online, commissions from around the world started rolling in and his day job as a successful lawyer took a backseat. That was about ten years ago. Today, between his studios in New York and Los Angeles, Sawaya has amassed more than 3.5 million LEGOs to create his internationally buzzed about works, such as a 20-foot long tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that took him an entire summer to create (using 80,000 LEGOs). His new show, “In Pieces,” on view at Soho’s Openhouse (through March 17), is a dual project with Australian photographer Dean West. To make a statement about identity—and how it is shaped in our modern society—the two artists have juxtaposed images featuring the LEGO sculptures with the actual sculptures themselves. 

Here, Sawaya (aka “The Brick Artist) gives insight on the show’s concept, its inspiration (sparked by a road trip across the American southwest), and why he won’t be tinkering with Lincoln Logs—or any materials other than LEGOs—anytime soon.  

How did you and Dean first meet?
NATHAN SAWAYA: Dean actually reached out to me and said he wanted to work together. He was in Australia and I was skeptical. I was in New York. Two weeks later he was at my doorstep and we hit it off. We really bonded when we decided to scout some locations. We rented a Jeep and we went to the southwest U.S. and just drove around looking for some bleak, desert-like landscapes. But then we started finding these ghost towns that really started driving the project. When you're on the road with someone, you're forced to get to get to know them, and we realized we had a lot of similarities when it came to our artistic sense and our vision of this project.

What's the concept of the show?
NS: Dean really focuses on hyper-realistic photography and I do large-scale Lego sculptures. So we came up with this concept of integrating my sculptures into his photography, and also, for the exhibition purposes, having the sculptures on display so the viewer is really surrounded by the art. The concept started three years ago when we were focusing on the construction of beauty and what that means. It's kind of changed over the course of the three years. Now I'd say the theme is really the construction of identity. So we've placed figures in certain situations and scenes and really given them a sense of emptiness almost, and we've built this scene around them.

Your sculptures actually share some aesthetic elements with digital photographs.
NS: They do have almost a pixelation effect. So when you blend them into the photographs, it's really a comment on modern technology. From a certain point of view, it's fun to look at the images and try to pick out what portion of this photograph is actually built from LEGO, but there's also some real commentary there on identity and society and we've been getting some strong reactions about it.

You've had tremendous success as a LEGO artist, with international solo exhibits and lots of artwork sold. Have you considered creating in a different medium? Or is LEGO pretty much your thing?
NS: I keep playing around with different mediums from time to time. LEGO is what I'm best known for these days. When you own three and a half million LEGO bricks, it's kind of hard to just switch to something else. With projects like this, I can still expand and push it in a different direction. 

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