A Conversation with a Lego Artist
To be deemed a master Lego builder, you must first make a sphere out of the toy bricks. The challenge is brilliant, and elegant in its simplicity: take something defined by its blockiness, something that is, by its very essence, square, and use it to make a curve. There’s a mystical element about it—to master the Lego, you must transcend the Lego.
On Nathan Sawaya’s website, you can see a sculpture of the solar system that he built. Not one but nine spheres, all built out of Lego, are precariously balanced on top of each other. The sculpture is as tall as a full grown person and the color and relative size of each planet is accurate; Saturn even has Lego rings.
Since 2000, Sawaya has worked as a professional Lego builder, one of only a dozen or so in the world. He makes sculptures and mosaics on commission, receiving requests for life-size replicas of cars and Stephen Colbert, while also constructing his own Lego art, which is currently touring America and Australia. I spoke to him about what it’s like to have the job that every child dreams of.
Timothy Nassau: Could you start by talking about your background? Did you like Lego as a child?
Nathan Sawaya: I had Lego bricks as a kid; I had very accommodating parents who allowed me to have a 36 square foot Lego city. I think one of the very first “aha” moments for me was when I was about ten years old. I wanted to get a dog and my parents said no. So what did I do? I tore up part of my Lego city and built myself a life-sized dog out of Lego. It was very rectangular, very boxy, so I called it a boxer. That was the first moment when I thought, “Okay, there’s something to this.”
TN: How did this toy become the focus of your career? Presumably you didn’t study Lego when you attended NYU…
NS: I got out of college and I didn’t really have faith in my art as a career. I ended up practicing law for a few years, but I would come home at the end of the evening and I would need some sort of creative outlet. I would draw, I would write, and sometimes I would sculpt. I would sculpt out of clay, out of wire; I did a series of sculptures out of candy… And then one day I found myself compelled to pull up this toy from my childhood and create a sculpture out of Lego. It got a great response from friends and family, which encouraged me to do future pieces. I eventually put together a website where I could showcase my work and I started getting commissions from around the world. The day my website crashed from too many hits I realized it was time to leave the law firm behind and go into art full time.
TN: Could you walk me through the process of how you build a sculpture from the idea to actually having a finished work?
NS: It just depends on the piece… Sometimes it’s as simple as just looking at something and figuring it out as I go. A lot of times I’ll do sketches ahead of time. I use something called brick paper, which is like graph paper, the graph paper we had in math class with the little squares. Brick paper is like that except it has little rectangles the shape of Lego bricks, so I can draw on that and it gives me a sense of the direction I’m going. As I’m building, I glue each piece together one by one. Because I ship things all over the world, I want to make sure it arrives in one piece. I find museums get kind of grumpy when artwork shows up in a crate and it’s just a bunch of loose bricks…
TN: You never make instructions, right? So they wouldn’t be able to put it back together?
NS: I try not to… it’s a laborious process so I don’t do it.
TN: Because you’re putting glue on every brick does that mean if you make a mistake you’re stuck with it?
NS: I’m very good with a chisel and hammer.
TN: When you build a sculpture are you only using a few different kinds of bricks?
NS: Yeah, generally just rectangular pieces. Those were the pieces I had as a child, so it’s usually just the standard rectangular bricks.
TN: Has there ever been a time when there was some kind of brick you wanted that hasn’t been made yet?
NS: No. I want to use the standard bricks, standard colors, standard shapes and sizes. Part of that is so when a child goes to one of my exhibitions, if they’re inspired by the work and they want to go home and build themselves, they can get those exact same pieces at a toy store. I’m not using anything special.
TN: How many bricks do you have?
NS: In my art studio I have a million and a half.
TN: Does the Lego company provide you with them?
NS: No, I buy my bricks just like everyone else. I have that relationship with the Lego company at this point where I’m a unique client because I buy by the hundreds of thousands. We’ve developed a relationship, which is great, where I can email them and say, “Hey I need 100,000 red two by fours,” and then they’ll ship them over. But I still have to buy them.
TN: Could you talk about how much it costs to commission a Lego sculpture? For example, if I wanted a life-size replica of myself, how much would that cost?
NS: It depends on complexity, but it goes for 15 to 20 (thousand).
TN: And what’s the range of time you spend working on something?
NS: Again depending on complexity, a life-size human form is probably going to take two to three weeks.
TN: What’s the largest sculpture you’ve ever made?
NS: I did a billboard in Hollywood that was 53 feet long and 16 feet high, used over 500,000 pieces. The largest sculpture would probably be my Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton piece I did for a museum in Australia. It’s twenty feet long and it took an entire summer to create.
TN: What about the strangest thing you’ve been asked to build?
NS: I get requests that are somewhat out of line… I won’t touch on that, though. Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy contacted me when he was getting married to Ashlee Simpson and said he needed a four foot tall Lego bumblebee as his wedding gift to her.
TN: Do you have any sense of why Lego attracts you so much (as an artistic tool, specifically)?
NS: There are many reasons. It’s a medium that can be used to create anything, at least from my perspective. Anything I can imagine I can create out of it. For me, I like seeing people’s reactions to the work. I think it’s very fun to see people’s reactions to artwork created out of this toy they are so familiar with. It’s this childhood toy everyone’s played with. When I hear from people, they go to the museum exhibitions and they see my work, they’re attracted to it because they can relate to it on a different level. Someone goes to a museum and they see a big marble statue, they can appreciate it but when they go home that night it’s very doubtful they’re going to have a slab of marble in their living room that they can start chipping away at. But so many times people contact me and say hey, we saw your exhibit, we went home, and we started building with Lego as a family because we got inspired. And that’s kind of special.
TN: Who would you say your biggest influences are as a sculptor?
NS: Tom Friedman is one of my main influences. When I was a lawyer thinking about if I wanted to leave my job to become an artist full time. I was reading a book of his work. He uses a lot of household items to create fantastic works of art and he was a big inspiration: if he could create these amazing things with paper cups and toothpicks what could I do? I look at Antony Gormley. His human forms are amazing. Those are two right off the top of my head.
TN: Thinking of your sculptures in relation to someone like Michel Gondry, who uses Lego to make music videos, do you think there are other ways to use Legos that people haven’t thought of? Is the medium exhausted?
NS: Based on the number of emails I receive alone, from artists and people saying “I’m going to be like you,” “I’m going to do what you do,” or “I’m going to start using Lego in my artwork,” I would expect to see a whole Lego art movement in the next five to ten years. I think it’s far from exhausted, I think it’s just starting. I’ve seen some work from other artists that’s simply amazing, so I think you can just keep pushing the envelope and see what else we can do. When I started out, my whole thing was: let’s take Lego to a new direction, out of the toy store and into the museum. So what’s next? Someone’s going to come up with something else that’s going to be amazing too.
You can see pictures of Nathan’s art at blog.theindy.org.
TIMOTHY NASSAU B’12 prefers to work with Duplo.