Building a colourful, new life

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Ingenium - Canada's Museums of Science and Innovation
"Think!" by Nathan Sawaya.

Have you ever dreamed of ditching your day job and playing with toys instead?

Nathan Sawaya—a former attorney in New York City—did just that, and he couldn’t be happier. Sawaya creates inspiring artwork from one of the most recognizable toys in the world: the LEGO® brick. An exhibition featuring his creations, THE ART OF THE BRICK, has travelled around the globe and was named one of CNN’s Top Ten “Global Must-See Exhibitions.”

THE ART OF THE BRICK is coming to the Canada Science and Technology Museum this month, so the Ingenium Channel sat down with Sawaya to learn more about his intriguing journey into the world of art.

Ingenium Channel: I think a lot of people are fascinated by the fact that you left a six-figure job in the world of corporate law to become a full-time LEGO artist. Tell me how you made that decision and what that transition was like for you.

Nathan: After I graduated from college, I did not have faith in my art for a full-time career, and I felt this societal pressure to become a professional so I went to law school and became an attorney. When I was practicing law, I would come home from long days working at the firm in New York City, and I would need some sort of outlet. Some people go to the gym at the end of their day, but I found I needed a creative outlet. So I would draw or paint or write. Sometimes I even sculpted. And it was one day that I challenged myself to sculpt using this toy from my childhood. So I started experimenting with LEGO as an art medium. I put together a collection of sculptures and a website to showcase my own virtual gallery. Eventually I was getting commissioned to create works of art. And the day my website crashed from too many hits, I decided to make a change in my life. I left my day job behind to become a full-time working artist.

It was scary, but also completely liberating. I was in control of my own destiny and the first morning I woke up after leaving the law firm was the beginning of what has turned out to be a truly thrilling adventure.


"Strength of Spirit" by Nathan Sawaya.

Ingenium Channel: The magnitude of your projects clearly requires a ton of LEGO! How much LEGO do you purchase a year—and how do you keep it all organized?

Nathan: I have approximately seven million bricks in my art studio in Los Angeles. It is by far my biggest capital expense. It is all sorted by shape and color in clear plastic bins. That way, when I am working on a project, I can immediately grab the bricks I need to keep building.

In my art studio, I generally have two to three different projects always going on. When I am not traveling with THE ART OF THE BRICK, I spend six days a week in the studio, working full days on the various art projects. A life-size human form sculpture can take me up to two to three weeks.

Ingenium Channel: Describe your creation process—where do your ideas come from? How long does it typically take to bring an idea from concept to a full-blown, completed sculpture?

Nathan: The process to create these sculptures first starts with the idea. The idea is the key component in developing the art. And the idea must be inspired. Inspiration is a tough thing to define, because it can come from different places. Fortunately, having multiple art exhibitions touring the globe, I get to travel around the world a lot. I get to meet different people, go to different locations, and experience different cultures. And I use those moments for inspiration. I carry a sketch pad to jot down ideas as I go.

When I find inspiration for a new work of art, I am always excited, but the next step is serious planning. I like to plan out the sculpture as much as possible. I want to be able to visualize the final piece before I put down that first brick. As I am building I do glue each brick together. Because we ship artwork all over the world, I found that it is important to glue all of the bricks together to survive the shipping process. Now because I am gluing the bricks, that means that I sometimes have to use a chisel and hammer to break the bricks apart if I make a mistake. This can make for a slow process. When I am working on a sculpture I spend 10 to 12 hours a day in my art studio. When I finally complete a sculpture, I feel that same excitement that I did at first when I had the initial idea. But that quickly turns to thoughts about the next project.


"Baseball Player" by Nathan Sawaya.

Ingenium Channel: Your work has toured around the globe—and has been featured in a Lady Gaga video, on the red carpet at the Academy Awards, and even at a Tampa Bay Rays game. What has been one of your favourite—or most memorable—moments along the road?

Nathan: You mentioned the Tampa Bay Rays baseball game which I believe made MLB history as I was the first person to ever throw out a first pitch where the ball was made completely out of LEGO bricks. Fortunately, my pitch made it to the catcher’s glove without breaking apart.

But it would really be impossible for me to select the most memorable moment because they are all so different. When I was working as a lawyer, I never would have guessed that a career as an artist would take me to so many exciting places. I am humbled by the opportunities that creating art has allowed me to pursue. The most memorable thing may be just that I have found my passion and I am following my dreams. As an artist I have been able to travel the globe and meet folks from all walks of life. If I had stayed a lawyer, I don’t know if I would have got to do such amazing things as be a part of the Academy Awards, or be invited to the White House, or meet royalty, or even work with Lady Gaga. Overall, the worst day as an artist is still better than the best day as a lawyer.

Ingenium Channel: In THE ART OF THE BRICK, you’ve included both original pieces as well as reimagined versions of the world's most famous art masterpieces, like Van Gogh's Starry Night and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. What do you hope observers take away from THE ART OF THE BRICK?

Nathan: Overall, my role as an artist is to inspire. Throughout my own personal journey, I have learned that art is not optional. It’s not a nice to have, it’s a must have. When I was an attorney, I wasn’t happy, but creating art made me happy and I eventually changed my career to focus on making art. I’m not the only one who is positively impacted by exercising creativity. It has been proven time and time again that students do better in schools when they are exposed to art. Higher test scores and graduation rates when art is part of the curriculum. And creating art is often used in many types of therapy and recovery. Creating art makes you happier. Creating art makes you smarter. Creating art makes you healthier. Clearly, creating art makes you a better person. I want to inspire people to make art, so that they make a better world. Lofty? Sure, I know, but why not?

Ingenium Channel: What words of wisdom would you give to a child or youth in awe of your work—who would love to follow in your footsteps?

Nathan: Practise, practise, practise. Don’t give up on your dreams. And never lose your imagination.

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Sonia Mendes

Sonia Mendes is the English Writer/Editor for Ingenium. She loves digging behind the scenes to tell the quirky, colourful stories of museum life and all things related to science and innovation.