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Meet A Lawyer-turned-Lego Sculptor

Nathan Sawaya talks about his new exhibition, how he’s built a career out of bricks and his strangest commission

Meet Nathan Sawaya, a guy who left his job as a lawyer to pursue an unlikely passion…creating sculptures out of Legos. Lucky for Sawaya, the risk paid off. Today he’s a respected contemporary artist, based in New York and Los Angeles, who has a huge cult following and shows his work in exhibitions all over the world.

On February 28, Sawaya debuts his latest project, “In Pieces,” at New York’s Avant Gallery. For this exhibition, he collaborated with acclaimed Australian photographer Dean West, and the result is an 18-piece collection of haunting, hyper-realistic photographs featuring a single object sculpted out of Legos that’s placed discreetly within the scene. DuJour recently spoke to Sawaya about “In Pieces,” how long his sculptures take to create, and the strangest thing he’s ever been commissioned to build. 

First things first – how exactly did you start sculpting with Legos?
I was practicing corporate law and I needed a creative outlet, so I would paint and draw at night. I sculpted out of candy for some projects…and then I thought, “Well what about this toy from my childhood? Can I build an apple to look like an apple?” I started out doing still lifes – it was just representational stuff. Then I went into the human forms…then I added more emotion behind it. I put a website together with images of what I was working on, and I started getting commissions from it.

Were you still a practicing lawyer at the time?
I was working full days at the law firm, and I was coming home at night and would have 8 hours of work. It was getting to the point where my nights were way too busy. My website crashed from way too many hits. So I knew it was time to make that transition. I went from a secure six-figure salary and health benefits to a very bohemian lifestyle where I didn’t know if I would make rent. But I followed my passion, and the dream has worked out.

Tell me about your process creating the pieces.
I sketch it out on “brick paper,” which is kind of like graph paper… like a blue print. And then I start from there. I have about 2.5 million bricks in my studio so I can just get to work. And I glue all the bricks together so it’s transportable.

How did the collaboration with Dean West come about?
Dean had pitched me on a collaboration a couple years ago. He’s based in Australia, and I said, “If you’re really serious about it, come to New York. We’ll take a meeting and we’ll figure out if there’s really something here.” And two weeks later he was in my studio. We hit if off right off the bat.

Where were all of the “In Pieces” images taken?
We did a week, just the two of us in a Jeep, driving around, scouting. In Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Toronto – finding these abandoned locations.

The pieces all have this dark, eerie quality to them. Was that your intention? 
There’s a theme behind it. It’s about the construction of beauty… that type of emphasis has not really been a part of some of my other shows. You look at all the figures in all of the images, and they have this aloofness, this emptiness. Dean focuses on what he calls hyper-reality, taking an mage and making something more than what was really there.

Tell me about the piece you call “Dress.”
For this particular image we scouted many different theaters. We wanted something that would really pop off the page, with nice lighting but also a timelessness to it. We didn’t want something that was too modern or too art deco. We found this place in Toronto. We knew we wanted the bricks blowing off her dress. We wanted a cold, wintery, snowy scene – so Dean spent many mornings getting up at 3am when it was snowing to make sure it looked right. To get the lighting and that snow just the way we wanted it.

So after you get the shots you want, what happens next? 
Then we hire the talent, and we place the talent in separately. For the dress – we constructed it out of fabric, and because we weren’t getting enough blowing action from the wind, we put wire in it to get it to look right. Then from there, we shoot the dress in 360 degrees, and I take that as a basis to build it out of Lego Bricks. At the exhibition we’ll have this image, but then we’ll also have the Lego dress.

Do you look at something like the dress and know exactly what pieces you’ll need?
I think in rectangles. I can look at your face, or a building, and think of how to construct it out of Lego. I see the world in squares, in right angles. That’s kind of the magic.

And how long does it take? How many bricks do you use?
It depends on the piece. A life-size human form takes about 2-3 weeks. If you go with something like the dress, it took over a month. I had to treat it like fabric because you’re going to see all the different angles. I used between 40-50,000 bricks. It was just crazy how long that took.

When you’re purchasing in such bulk… do they give you a good deal on the pieces?
Well, I still have to buy all my bricks. But they give me access. Before, I would have to go to a toy store on eBay to buy all my stuff. Now we have this relationship where I can send them an email and say, “Hey I need 500,000 red pieces.”
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What does the Lego company think of what you do?
I try to meet with them twice a year just to check in. They’re very protective of their brand. They have this multi-million dollar toy company, and I’m using it in a way that’s very different. I’m pushing it into the art world. It’s unique – it’s not like you hear of a painter meeting with the paint company.

Has anyone ever commissioned you to do something totally bizarre?
I do get some random requests. One of the stranger ones was from the musician Pete Wentz. When he was marrying Ashlee Simpson he wanted to get her a very unique wedding present. So he commissioned me to do a gigantic bumble bee, and I installed it in their house. There is a unique niche that I’ve found with celebs: people who want to give a present to a celebrity but don’t know what to give them. They have everything!

Have you ever turned down a ridiculous request?
There was a guy who wanted a life-size nude woman with the head of a cat. And I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna pass.”

Do you see yourself moving on from Legos any time soon?
I don’t. When I started to do the human forms, it was very experimental at the time. Putting emotion into a Lego brick sculpture had never been seen before. I still want to push the edge of the envelope. I still want to keep experimenting.

What’s the best part about what you do?
There are 400 million kids around the world saying, “I want your job!” They write to me and say, “I want to be a Lego artist!” It’s great. I feel like I’m inspiring them. When people see my exhibitions, they go home and then tell me, “We took out all of our bricks and started building as a family.” That’s something a marble sculptor probably doesn’t ever get to hear.

 

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