26.05.2015

Everything Is Awesome

Nathan Sawaya is a recovering NYC lawyer who now gets paid to build Lego

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Illustration: Amber Pretorius

“The worst day as an artist is still better than the best day as a lawyer,” says Nathan Sawaya, whose world-touring Lego exhibition includes 76 large-scale Lego sculptures, ranging from portraits to 3D creations.

CNN calls The Art of The Brick one of the world's 10 must-see exhibitions. Who are you to argue with CNN – Al Qaeda? Everyone we spoke to who attended the show loved it, which came as no surprise as Lego recently knocked Ferrari from top spot to claim the most powerful brand in the world title. This is largely thanks to The Lego Movie, which helped the brand benefit from the lingering nostalgia for the toys, and the way that they appeal to both genders and all ages.

Along with drawing comics, writing stories and performing magic tricks, Nathan played with Lego bricks as a child, refusing to give them up just because he’d grown up to become a corporate lawyer in New York City. After a day of grind he’d actually use the colourful bricks to de-stress at home.

“Most people go to the gym at the end of the day. Me, I need to be creative, and would draw, paint, sculpt...” Having already worked with everything from bottle caps to candy, Nathan decided to use Lego bricks and found his niche. “Now that I have 4 million Lego bricks in my studio I’m going to be sticking with this for a little bit.”

Nathan put a website together – a virtual gallery – and was soon getting commissions from folks all over the world, which made him think, “Okay, there’s something to this!” When that website crashed from too many hits, Nathan decided to leave his law firm.

“My parents were actually really supportive. They’d always supported creativity growing up. Interestingly enough it was my colleagues at the law firm who were confused. My bosses were very confused. A lot of people thought I was crazy while others were jealous to see me following my passion.”

There’s a sculpture in the Art Of The Brick exhibition which unpacks this. 'Grasp' features a figure pulling away from a wall while several arms pull it back. The piece represents Nathan’s turning point, him pulling away from people telling him he couldn’t follow his dreams, trying to get him to be another brick in the wall.

You know how your favourite Star Wars Lego, Batman Lego or whatever Lego friends you use to build your Lego City and play your Lego games with usually come with easy to follow, full-colour instructions? Well life doesn’t have a blueprint and neither do the sculptures that Nathan creates.

“I map it out, draw up some sort of plan, but then mix that up with freestyle. How much is planned beforehand just depends on the piece. But I do always try to envision what that finished piece will look like before I put down the first brick.”

Some pieces will require a bakkie-load of bricks – the 6m-long Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton took three months and 80 000 pieces! Fortunately Nathan has formed a pretty good relationship with the Danish toy company, and will order his Lego bricks from them directly. He still has to buy them though, he’s not sponsored, but at least he can access thousands of red bricks in bulk instead of buying, say, 1000 fire station kits and salvaging what he needs from these. 

Does Nathan rebuild everything over again when he arrives in a new gallery? No, he actually glues the pieces together when constructing his artwork. Which kind of goes against The Lego Movie, doesn’t it? Kragle was Lord Business’ secret weapon and everything…

"Was that the moral you took from it? I thought that they were encouraging people to be creative with their bricks… Kids ask me about gluing their bricks and I tell all of them the same thing – you don’t want to glue your bricks. You want to still have that ability to play with them. But for me glue has become a necessity. I had to learn the hard way. When you’re shipping art works all around the world, people get grumpy when they open up a crate and it’s just a bunch of loose bricks and a little card that says, ‘some assembly required’."

Underfoot a piece of Lego can cause excruciating pain, but Nathan Sawaya is proof that in the right hands the simple plaything can be elevated to art.