NATHAN SAWAYA’S Building Blocks of Perception • The Art of the Brick

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Artist Feature,   From Issue 706   By: Robert E Martin

24th June, 2010     0

If much of good art is matter of transforming perspective about something familiar and infusing it through the act of deconstruction (or perhaps alchemy) into something fresh, singular, and timeless; sculptor Nathan Sawaya has cracked the mold in a manner that would make Jackson Pollack’s face turn into a dripped dimpled smile upon the canvas.

Taking something as common place as LEGO bricks and using them to create powerful renderings ranging from detailed recreations of everyday objects to profound mediations upon the reconstruction of New Orleans, Sawaya’s visionary work will be on display at The Midland Center for the Arts in a comprehensive exhibition entitled The Art of the Brick.

On display through September 2nd, this Michigan debut showcases 28 amazing pieces of art, including three-dimensional sculptures and oversized mosaic portraits.

Recently the artist sat down to shed some light and thoughts about the fanciful creations that have served as building blocks to forge new directions into both his life and the world as we see it.         

Review: How did you first get involved working with LEGO® bricks and when did you
determine they could be rendered in creations that would classify as a
credible art form?

Nathan: I have been fooling around with sculpture all of my life, but it was about ten years ago that I challenged myself to create a large scale sculpture using only LEGO® bricks.  It got a good response and I soon put together a few more pieces.  I posted photos of my works on my website,, and soon I was getting commissions from all over the world. 

Review:  How difficult is it working with LEGOS and how many pieces have you
created with them over the years?

Nathan: Working with LEGO® bricks can be confining because I am working with small rectangles, but that is also part of its charm.  I appreciate the cleanliness of the medium - the right angles and 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.

I have never counted, but I have created hundreds of sculptures over the years.

Review: What are some of the more unique constructions that you have created
that stand out in your mind as definitive high points in terms of your art?

Nathan: Yellow is a sculpture I built out of thousands of LEGO® bricks that depicts a life-size figure tearing his chest open as bricks spill out.  It was completed in February 2006.  The piece can literally be interpreted as opening oneself up to the world.  Yellow is part of a series of art pieces depicting human metamorphosis.  By creating human figures I strive to create an everyman to put the viewer in place of the sculpture.  Thus experiencing the emotions of the piece first hand, rather than just observing them.

Another unique construction was a piece titled Rebirth of New Orleans.  After the Katrina devastation, I was commissioned to build a permanent installation for the New Orleans Public Library.  The sculpture is a large hand with a fountain of color bursting out forming a colorful city.  The piece celebrates the rebuilding of New Orleans. 

I drew my inspiration for the sculpture from the many drawings that children from across the country had submitted. Children were asked to draw and write about what they felt was important for the rebuilding of New Orleans. Through the thousands of pictures, I definitely noticed that no matter where they were from, all kids had very similar ideas about what was important for a city. It would need a fire station, a hospital, schools and a park. They were drawn in different styles and a plethora of colors, but I saw these themes repeated again and again. Other common themes included hotels, houses and libraries. In the end, I used these drawings as inspiration to create the sculpture.  I really wanted to capture the look of the drawings by making the buildings brightly colored, slightly crooked or slanted in places, and the windows not always lining up.

The final sculpture is permanently on display in the Main Branch of the New Orleans Public Library.

Review: What is the most challenging component involved with this type of
artistic creation?

Nathan: It takes weeks to complete a life size human form.  The long hours of creating a new piece bring me immense satisfaction.  When I am working on a project I enjoy, I completely submerge myself into the project, going into a trance-like state.  You need a lot of patience for this job.

Review: What's the biggest piece you've created and how many LEGOS did it take?

Nathan: I did a billboard once that measured over 53 feet long.  It used over 500,000 individual pieces.

Recently, I did a skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex that is 20 feet in length.

Review:  Any additional thoughts on topics or areas that I may not have touched upon?

Nathan: I like to create artwork out of LEGO® bricks 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.  I want to elevate this simple plaything to a place it has never been before.

The fundamental purpose to my art is to captivate people for as long as I can keep their attention.  I strive to create artwork that is interesting and that is unlike anything they have seen before.


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