Imagine Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Edvard Munch’s The Scream or the towering Venus de Milo statue by Alexandros of Antioch. Then reimagine them made out of Legos. Nathan Sawaya’s traveling exhibit, The Art of the Brick, uses more than 1.5 million individual Lego bricks to reproduce famous works of art. The bilingual show is at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas through Aug. 18. Sawaya brings a child-like wonder to classic masterpieces and abstract, complex thoughts and feelings. A simple toy transforms a real-life creation into an children’s art form.
From an early age, Sawaya, now 45, loved Legos. He got his first set at age 5, and when he went to college, he even took Legos with him. But Sawaya did not start like many other artists—following his or her passion from the get-go. He worked as a corporate lawyer in New York City and needed a creative outlet after his day at the office. He drew, painted and even sculpted before one day having an idea: “What about [Legos]? Could I use [them] to create large-scale sculpture?” Sawaya recounts. From there, he experimented for some time before leaving his law firm and going into art full time. “I was going from this very secure lifestyle of being a lawyer to going into almost this bohemian lifestyle,” Sawaya says. “I let my legal license expire, so I didn’t have a safety net. I knew this is what I wanted to do. I found my passion.”
Though he began working on his project in 2002, Sawaya’s first museum exhibit didn’t debut until 2007. It was at the Lancaster Museum of Art in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which, at the time, had about 30,000 visitors a year. “When we had the exhibition, over the six weeks, we had 25,000 people,” Sawaya remembers. “So they were blown away right from the start, and we realized we were on to something.”
And they were. The Art of the Brick has been seen around the world, from Singapore to Australia. And once you see the artworks, it’s clear how such a simple idea became a phenomenon
“I like the straight lines,” Sawaya says. “I like the sharp corners. When you see my artwork up close, you’ll see it’s a lot of sharp corners, right angles, little rectangles and squares, but then when you back away from it, all those corners, they’re going to blend into curves. And that’s the magic of using Lego bricks.”
The exhibit is more than just recreations of traditional artwork. The exhibit runs through several galleries, from Metamorphosis to The Human Condition to Through the Darkness. One of Sawaya’s original creations, a red human figure with hands elongating from the wall trying to pull the figure back, is personal: “[Grasp] comes from everyone telling me, ‘No, you’re making a mistake. What are you doing? Are you crazy? You’re leaving a law firm job to go play with toys?” he says. Another piece, Yellow, has been used on both album covers and fashion labels. The work shows a figure tearing its chest open with thousands of yellow Lego bricks falling out. It symbolizes opening oneself up to the world, Sawaya says.
These works are no simple task to create. A life-size human figure can take up to two or three week to build and will use anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 bricks, Sawaya says, and it’s all self-funded. In his Los Angeles studio, he has nearly 7 million bricks. When creating the masterpieces, Sawaya doesn’t take any easy routes. Each brick is the classic rectangular piece, and it is up to him to figure out how to make a curve out of the sharp-edged Lego.
Does one work stand out as Sawaya’s best? “I don’t pick a favorite piece,” Sawaya says. “I put my heart and soul into all of these. They’re my babies. How do you pick a favorite child?”
This exhibit isn’t the last you’ll see of Sawaya. We have the inside scoop that he is currently working on a new project that he started a year and a half ago. The new series is hopefully going to debut later this year, he says.
One thing you might not realize while passing along the Lego mound of Moai (aka the Easter Island head statues) and the Little Dancer of Fourteen Years by Edgar Degas is that you can be taken aback in such a powerful way by a toy you used to play with as a kid. Your kids can become artists just like Sawaya.
“I think that it’s important to use Legos because it makes the art accessible,” Sawaya says. “It’s about the democratizing of the art world. Using a toy makes it something that everyone can connect to. Everyone has Lego bricks, and that’s what makes this art … accessible and hopefully inspiring. My role as an artist is to inspire. I hope to inspire all of you when you see the exhibition.”