Brick by brick with Nathan Sawaya.
As a child growing up in Veneta, Oregon, Nathan Sawaya liked to play with Lego. A lot of kids do, but Sawaya had a passion for it. When he wanted a dog and his parents refused him one, he built one—life sized—out of Lego. Now Sawaya is opening his first solo show with Lego sculptures in New York.
by Eva Stenskär
Ten years ago, Sawaya returned to his passion for Lego. An established artist working mostly with clay, Sawaya saw the potential of working with Lego, and four years later he dropped all other materials and focused on Lego bricks. Now the “brick artist,” Sawaya makes all kinds of sculptures out of Lego. Nordstjernan hooked up with Sawaya at his studio in New York City as he prepared to move his Lego sculptures to Agora Gallery in Chelsea for his first solo show in New York.
How did you start out with Lego?
“Very narcissistically by making a self-portrait. Then I made things I saw around me: an apple, a pencil … only when I knew how to really work in Lego did I start making these, what I like to call emotional art works.”
Don’t these sculptures break easily?
“No, because I glue them together. Mostly because I am concerned with what happens when I ship the sculptures.”
Do you get the Lego bricks for free?
“No, I don’t. I buy them like everyone else, but I buy in bulk. It’s the same bricks I used as a kid.”
Do you have a favorite kind of brick?
“Yes, I prefer the classic, rectangular brick.”
How many bricks go into one of your sculptures?
“I once did a 20-feet-long dinosaur skeleton and used about 80,000 Lego pieces.”
How long does it take to make a sculpture?
“A human figure takes me about 3 weeks to make.”
Is there a specific challenge in working with Lego?
“Well, making a curve, something round is a bit difficult.”
Your most challenging piece to date?
“I once did a replica of the Iwo Jima monument that was difficult because it involves 6 marines, but also it is such an iconic piece.”
What makes a Lego sculpture special?
“I think it is much more accessible than, say, marble. A lot of people who would otherwise not come to a museum or a gallery come to see my sculptures because they’re made out of Lego. It gives people a feeling they too could make something.”
And you encourage them?
“Yes, I do. I get e-mails from kids everyday saying, ‘When I grow up I want your job’ and ‘How do you do this or that’ and I try to answer them as best I can. I actually expect a Lego art movement in the next 5 years.”
If you’re in New York, drop by to see Nathan Sawaya’s Lego brick sculptures at Agora Gallery in Chelsea. It’s the first solo exhibition of fine art in the Big Apple created entirely out of Lego bricks. The opening reception is March 25, from 6-8 p.m. The exhibition runs through April 13.
For more information about Nathan Sawaya: www.brickartist.com and about the gallery: www.agora-gallery.com.
Lego began as a workshop of Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter from Billund, Denmark. Christiansen began making wooden toys in 1932, and gave his company the name Lego two years later. It expanded to producing plastic toys in 1940, and nine years later it began producing the now famous interlocking pieces. Lego was coined by Christiansen from the Danish phrase “leg godt,” which means “play well.” The name could also be interpreted as "I put together" and "I assemble" in Latin, though this would be a somewhat forced application of the general sense "I collect; I gather; I learn"; the word is most used in the derived sense "I read." The Lego Group's motto is “kun det bedste er godt nok” which means “only the best is good enough.” This motto was created by Christiansen to encourage his employees never to skimp on quality, a value he believed in strongly. The motto is still used within the company today.