1-on-1 with LEGO Artist Nathan Sawaya

I recently posted an article (look below you) on Nathan Sawaya, a LEGO artist from New York. He build things out of blocks that end up coming out as true master pieces. Having contacted him about doing a life size Tiger Woods sculpture (which was way out of my price range) I also confided in a possible interview for my readers. I have been, since October, writing interviews for Indyconcerts.com. I have interviewed bands and DJs from all over the world including the likes of The Last Good Year, Thriving Ivory, Lisa Loeb, and BenSem. But I had an idea the other day. Why not write interviews with people in other talents? Well, here you are. Mr. Nathan Sawaya will be the first (with many more to follow) of people in careers or with talents I feel the need to share with you. So, sit back and get to know the man behind the brick.

What is your first memory of playing with LEGOs?

It was Christmas 1978 when I received my first box of LEGO bricks from my Grandparents. I remember ripping into the package and building a LEGO house right then, oblivious to the rest of Christmas morning. It seems like I have been creating with LEGO ever since that day. Of course, these days my LEGO creations are a little bigger than a toy house.

Playing with LEGO growing up let me build anything I wanted to build. It let my imagination control the playtime. If I wanted to be a rock star that day, I could build myself a guitar. If I wanted to be an astronaut, I could build myself a rocket. It was the perfect tool to lead me into my current life as an artist, where I get to create whatever I want. And get paid for it!

With some other toys, if you lost a piece, then the whole toy couldn’t be played with, but not with LEGO bricks. If you lost one LEGO brick, you just had to be creative and find some other way to build it.

That creativity led me to becoming a full time artist. As an artist LEGO is a great medium for creating anything I can imagine. I still use those same rectangular plastic bricks that I had as a child, but now I try and use them in a way that hasn’t been seen before. By taking the bricks and making them more of an art medium rather than only a toy.

Is the Art of the Brick the first gallery tour of your work?

The Art of the Brick® is my museum exhibition that is currently touring North America. I have had works appear in galleries before, but my first solo gallery show will be at the Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, CT this September.

How many gallery shows have you had with your work?

I have had various works appear in several galleries and museums around the world.

Where did you come up with the idea to turn a childhood toy into such amazing artwork?

Several years ago I challenged myself to build a large-scale sculpture out of LEGO bricks. After a positive response, I started working on other large sculptures, and soon put photos of them on my website, http://www.brickartist.com. Soon thereafter I was getting commissions from all over the world.

I have sculpted with different, more traditional media, such as clay and wire, but LEGO is something that I enjoy working with because people relate to my sculptures in some way. People can enjoy a marble statue, but most folks don’t have large slabs of marble in their homes. When people see my LEGO sculptures, they can relate because they have played with LEGO bricks at some point. They can connect to this toy, and are amazed what can be done with it.

What is the first piece that you ever created?

When I was a child I created all sorts of things. One of my first “sculptures” was when my parents didn’t let me get a dog, so I built one myself.

Are they all for sale?

A lot of my sculptures are for sale. Many of the sculptures on my website have already sold. But I am always waiting for that next great commission.

Do you have a hard time letting one go after you have built it?

I create art for people to enjoy, so it is bittersweet when a sculpture sells. I usually am pretty happy to have more room in my art studio.

What is the process like when you start a new project?

Once I figure out what I am going to build, I then try and picture in my head what the finished piece is going to look like. This may involve me doing research for a while to get ideas as to how something looks exactly. For example, when I recently built a large bear, I spent a lot of time online looking at pictures of bears to get a feel for what details are needed to make up a bear.

The next step involves sketching out my ideas. I sketch on something called “brickpaper” which is like graph paper but with rectangles the exact size as bricks. In fact, I now have pads of brickpaper available on my website. Eventually, I start building. The good thing about working with LEGO is that if I don’t like how something looks after I built it, I can just take it apart and build it again differently.

Do you work with any other medium outside of LEGO blocks?

I have sculpted with different, more traditional media, such as clay and wire, but LEGO is something that I enjoy working with because people relate to my sculptures in some way. People can enjoy a marble statue, but most folks don’t have large slabs of marble in their homes. When people see my LEGO sculptures, they can relate because they have played with LEGO bricks at some point. They can connect to this toy, and are amazed what can be done with it.

Do you have a partnership with the folks at LEGO?

No, I am a freelance artist. After working with LEGO bricks as a medium for a few years now, I have developed a great business relationship with the company, but I am still an independent artist.

What is your favorite piece?

My favorite project is always my next one. I truly believe I can build anything out of LEGO and I get excited about being challenged. I can’t wait to get my next commission!

What took you from the west coast to the east coast?

I left Oregon when I was a teenager to go to school at NYU. These days I’m traveling a lot so I am always going coast to coast.

Do you like living in New York?

Yes, I thrive on its energy. When I get stuck on some aspect of my artwork, I will often just take a walk in the city and usually that leads to some sort of inspiration.

Do you use only default LEGO colors or do you paint your own to match the design?

I use the bricks that are available in the toy stores. Same pieces, same colors.

What is it like having your work featured in so many places?

The purpose of my work is to captivate folks for as long as I can keep their attention, so I enjoy that my work is reaching many people.

What is the most crazy sculpture you have been commissioned to create?

Oh, I get wacky requests all of the time. Last year I was asked by a famous musician to make a large bumble bee as his wedding gift to his famous musician bride-to-be. That was pretty fun.

When someone orders one of these outside of New York how do you ship it to them?

The sculptures are packed and shipped just like any other piece of fine art. I have shipped works to places all over the world.

Is there any sculpture that you have always wanted to create but have never started?

I have many ideas that I have yet to begin. I guess you will have to wait and see.

What was it like being featured on Mythbusters?

It was fun to work with the cast. They really get their hands dirty and run a great operation. I was really impressed with the show.

How cool was it being on the David Letterman show?

I had a great time. I was asked to create a portrait of Biff during the course of the show, so they kept checking back in on me and my progress. It was fun to be a part of the entire hour.

How long does it take you to create a typical life sized model?

Depending on the size and complexity, it can take 3-4 weeks to create a life-sized sculpture.

Do you listen to music while you build?


Are there any other artists out there trying to copy your style?

There are 400 million kids out there creating with LEGO.

Have you ever been trying to create something and just couldn’t get the bricks to fit the way you saw it in your head?

Sometimes, but it is important to realize that there are several different ways to get the bricks to look like the final goal. You just have to be creative.

What are the copyright laws for your work?

The copyright laws for my work are the same as they are for any one else’s work.

What would you be doing if you were not playing with LEGO all day?

I would probably be a filmmaker. I tell stories with my art, and I think that if I wasn’t creating sculptures, I would be telling stories a different way, like through film.

Without using Google, do you know when LEGO was founded?


Where can the readers see more about your work and gallery tours?

Check out http://www.brickartist.com for all the latest artwork, including my newest piece: my attempt at a cello out of LEGO.

Any last words for the audience?

Build on!

I want to thank Nathan Sawaya for taking the time to answer all these questions and to encourage me to be a better artist. It’s funny how something that I used to play with when I was growing up has become not only a true art form but also an income and a career path for this artist. And if he ever decides to give me a pretty hefty discount I will be purchasing a life size Tiger Woods sculpture.