The worst day as an artist is still better than the best day as a lawyer.” So says Nathan Sawaya, who should know. He made exactly that transition a decade ago, going from New York City corporate attorney to art sensation via his incredible sculptures made entirely of LEGO bricks, which are featured in a new exhibit at the Pacific Science Center called The Art of the Brick.
Despite the scale and detail of many of the pieces, the most striking thing about Sawaya’s art is its familiarity; his work is just as approachable to a Minecraft-playing second-grader as to his septuagenarian grandparent. “Everyone has snapped a LEGO brick together at one point or another,” Sawaya says, “and that makes the art relatable on a very different level. It’s the type of art that democratizes art.”
The exhibit showcases a wide range of subjects and ideas both surreal and sublime, from recreations of iconic paintings and sculptures to headier work that tackles metamorphosis and transformation among humans. Above all, however, Sawaya’s skill as a craftsman and artist are on full display.
Even more impressive is Sawaya’s use of just the basic LEGO bricks, rather than the thousands of supplementary pieces the company has created over the years. “I use traditional rectangular bricks that I had as a child,” he says. “I like those right angles. I like those sharp corners. When you see my sculptures up close, you see those right angles, but then you back away from it and all those corners blend into curves.” This can be seen in the Chuck Close-like reproductions of famous paintings. From far away, his LEGO Mona Lisa is unmistakable, but as you move closer, the pixel-like tiny bricks that make up the larger image come clearly into focus.
Though he sometimes uses the aid of a computer, most of his creations are done freehand or by using a hand-drawn sketch. Pieces are individually glued together as he goes, sometimes built in parallel, with one used as a working model and the other as the final glued-together piece.
Despite the promotion his work gives to LEGO, Sawaya pays retail for his materials. “It’s by far my biggest capital expense,” he says. “It’s about getting the 500,000 bricks when I need them.” He orders hundreds of thousands of bricks per month, which arrive at his Los Angeles studio by the truckload.
And while Sawaya makes money from commissions and gallery shows, it is the museum experience he enjoys the most: “I’m much happier to have everyone see the work in an exhibition like this than if this piece was in someone’s living room where only a few people are going to see it.” The more people he can reach, he says, the more he can inspire. “That’s the role of an artist, to inspire.” Pacific Science Center, 129 Warren Ave. N., 443-4629, pacificsciencecenter.org. Ends Sept. 11.