Meet Nathan Sawaya, The Most Famous LEGO Artist in the World
If Nathan Sawaya's name isn't familiar to you, his artwork almost certainly is.
Easily the most prominent LEGO artist in the world, Sawaya's custom 3D sculptures have traveled the globe and graced galleries from Times Square to Amsterdam. The New York-based lawyer-turned-artist constructs larger-than-life creations that are at once playful homages to a childhood pastime and thought-provoking manipulations of perspective and reality. His new book, The Art of The Brick: A Life in LEGO is a showcase of his work, the best of the best he's built over the past decade.
Earlier this week, I caught up with Sawaya to chat about his art, the book, and his jump from the corporate to creative world. Oh, and we also found out the one LEGO sculpture he'll never do. (Spoiler: it involves a dead animal.)
What first got you started building with LEGO as an art form?
It was over 10 years ago. I was practicing law in New York City, and I would come home at night and I would need some sort of creative outlet. Sometimes I would draw, sometimes I would paint, and sometimes I would sculpt. And one day I thought, well what about this toy from my childhood? Could I use LEGO bricks to create a large-scale sculpture?
I put a website together and the website started leading to commissions. And it expanded me in this medium. It was the day my website crashed from too many hits when I realized, "Okay, it’s definitely time to make a change." And I decided to leave the law firm and play with toys full-time.
So you had a vote of confidence from your fans before you really made the decision to switch careers?
A lot of people contact me because I’ve made such a dramatic career shift...And I often say: part of it is that it doesn’t happen overnight, and you do need to build up to it. And exploring the commission market. I was practicing law all day, and then I’d come at night and spend six or eight hours a night doing projects on commission. So I first realized there was definitely a market for this type of art before I actually left law to become a full-time artist.
What about LEGO spoke to you?
My parents were always encouraging creativity. Part of it is using [LEGO], this rectangular brick to create more than just cars and trucks, but actually human forms, full of curves. Part of it is when you look at one of my sculptures up close, you see it’s made of all these little squares and rectangles, sharp corners, but when you step back from it, all those corners and right angles blend into the curves. And those distinct lines becoming the curves of the sculpture, that’s really the magic of it.
Which LEGO sets did you have as a child? Did you have a favorite?
I had some of the space sets, and a lot of the town and city sets. I built a 36-square foot LEGO city where I could go and create and build adventures.
And one day I thought, well what about this toy from my childhood?
Have you hung onto any of those early sets today?
Oh sure. When I started experimenting with LEGO as an art medium, I just dug out my old bricks. These bricks were 10 or 15 years old, but they still snap together just fine. The bricks of my childhood still work with the LEGO bricks of today, and that’s one of the amazing things about the toy: its longevity. Generation to generation, the toy is still popular.
You buy all of your LEGO bricks for your sculptures. What’s the most you’ve ever spent on materials for a single piece?
See, I don’t break it down by piece because I just keep a full inventory—four million bricks in my inventory—so I’m just constantly buying more and more bricks. But I know I spend well over six figures annually on it. [Laughs] It’s by far my biggest capital expense!
Surely the LEGO folk give you a bulk discount?
I have a good business relationship with them that has lead to great access, and access is key. Because I’m such a unique customer, you know, I order hundreds of thousands of bricks at a time...So we have a relationship now where instead of me having to go to a store or anything, I can shoot them an email saying “Hey, I need 50,000 of the red size whatever"...and they ship that over from Europe.
A LEGO Master Builder and a LEGO Certified Professional. You’re the only person to ever be recognized as both.
Yeah. It’s weird.
I shoot LEGO an email saying “Hey, I need 50,000 of the red size whatever."
Does that title come with any perks? A special LEGO-themed black card?
Not really anything like that. I’d say it goes back to having that strong relationship with the company. As you can imagine, a painter probably doesn’t have the same type of relationship with a paint company, because they can just use any paint, they don’t have to use a specific product.
But because what I’ve chosen as my medium is also the world’s most popular toy...not a lot of artists have that type of relationship with a toy company.
They must love those emails.
I don’t know if it’s like that at all, actually. They’re a toy company, right? They focus really on selling their toys, as they should. I just happen to be this side project that’s going on...I just have tried to take it a new level.
You started on a commission basis from your website. What’s the strangest LEGO request you’ve ever received?
Recently it was Lady Gaga asking me for a piece. She wanted me to put her head on one of my sculptures for one of her music videos, so we made that happen this spring. That was unique.
I keep a full inventory. Four million bricks.
What was the last commission piece you had to reject outright?
It was probably possible, but I recently had to reject someone who asked for an urn for their chihuahua that had passed away. I passed on that one. I didn’t think I wanted to be associated with that type of work. As a policy, I’ve decided not to take on those types of requests.
How did you decide which pieces made the cut in your new book?
Some of the pieces don’t have that great of a background, but most of them have an interesting story that I wanted to tell and that’s what lead to the book—writing about the inspiration or the process. The book is not meant to be something you’d sit down and read cover to cover. It’s half coffee table book, half short stories.
Recently Lady Gaga asked me for a piece. That was unique.
Favorite piece and/or anecdote from the book?
Impossible to choose a favorite sculpture! How do you do it? If I had to pick a favorite sculpture, I’d say it might be the next one.
What’s something in this book that might surprise people?
I hope it’s that they’ll be inspired. I don’t know if people expect to be inspired when they pick up a coffee table book. I write about how I find art is so important to your well being...a little doodling during the day I think makes you a happier, better person.
What's the most important skill you learned as a lawyer that transfers to your work now?
I suppose it’s being able to understand folks to a certain extent, understand what their motivations are. A lot of times when I’m working with clients, and they have a specific idea of what they want for their artwork and maybe they’re having trouble expressing that, [I can] understand folks enough to get to that.
A little doodling during the day, I think, makes you a happier, better person.
From a practical standpoint, being a lawyer has been fantastic because I can negotiate my own contracts. When dealing with different entities, clients, whatever, I don’t have to go to a third party lawyer, I can just negotiate it myself.
So you're your own counsel?
To a certain extent, yeah, but I don’t want to be. I don’t love doing that. I really love being in the studio and creating art so that’s where I try and focus. But the background doesn’t hurt.
What’s your biggest fear arriving at an exhibition—the biggest thing that could possibly go wrong?
It’s come true! I’ll walk in and things are installed improperly. Sometimes they just don’t have the benefit of knowing what I’m thinking, so sometimes things are hung on the wall upside down or installed backwards.
Being a lawyer has been fantastic. I can negotiate my own contracts.
I’ve walked into an installation where my team had been working very diligently but they installed a huge piece sideways and just hadn’t seen it. They’d spent hours rigging this piece up on the wall. These things are heavy! It took about half a day to fix.
Okay I have to ask: in “Blue” (above), is he taking himself apart, or putting himself back together?
What do you think?
Depends on if you're a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full kind of person?
Absolutely. I could say something, but it doesn’t mean it’s the right answer. I think it changes depending on my mood. And I think that’s true for a lot of folks when they see that piece. It depends on where you’re at that day.