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Lego Artist Nathan Sawaya

Updated on February 22, 2012

Meet Nathan Sawaya, an Artist who creates with Lego bricks.

Nathan Sawaya is a modern day Peter Pan, who never outgrew his childhood love for building with Lego bricks. He has created some breathtaking and awe inspiring sculptures with nothing more than the ubiquitous little brick beloved round the world by millions of children (and quite a few adults).

His Lego sculptures adorn museums, galleries and private collections, and he has become famous around the globe for his whimsical brick creations.

Mr. Sawaya was kind enough to grant me an interview recently and I found him to be very soft-spoken, gregarious and generous with insights and anecdotes about his life as the world's premier Lego artist.

Enjoy.

Imagine buying Lego bricks...

by the hundreds of thousands.

Mr. Saways does not receive any special treatment from Lego and says that he buys his Lego bricks just like everyone else. "The difference being, he said, that I buy hundreds of thousands at a time".

When I asked if the Lego company gives him a preferred rate because of the huge amount of Legos that he purchases, Mr. Sawaya said that the most important thing to him was the relationship that he has built with the company and the access that they have given him.

He says that, instead of having to got to a Wal-Mart or Target and buy boxes (and boxes, and boxes) of Legos "I can shoot an email to Denmark and say that I need 300,000 red bricks and they will ship them over". Lego then takes care of coordinating and shipping them to his studio in New York. "I still have to pay for them", says Sawaya, "but they give me the access that I need to but them in bulk amounts". "I think that's because I'm such a unique customer", he said, in a grand understatement.

Mr. Sawaya said that the sight of a semi-truck pulling up and delivering pallets and pallets of Lego bricks can be a bit surreal. "I've become used to it", he says, "as has the neighborhood".

Mr. Sawaya keeps about 1.5 million bricks at his Manhattan studio at any given time in a wide variety of colors.

'Gray'

Grey
Grey

Mr. Sawaya teased me with just the smallest of hints about his upcoming project, a collaboration with the Australian artist/photographer Dean West that will be unveiled in early Summer.

'Everlasting'

Everlasting
Everlasting

I asked Mr. Sawaya about whether he works alone or with any assistants. He told me that, while he has assistants that help him to do many of the tasks that an internationally renowned artist needs to have done, such as making shipping arrangements for life-size Lego sculptures all over the globe, he does all of the creating and building alone.

He says that he has a great team that is indispensable in helping with all the logistics of running a business, running three Tours, and keeping in touch with customers of his artwork. For example, what exactly does it take to get a Lego sculpture through Customs?

When I mentioned that it seemed unfair that he was the only one that 'got to do the fun stuff' Mr. sawaya laughed and said "Yeah, I'm the one that gets to play with the bricks all day".

'Goodbye'

Goodbye
Goodbye

I asked Mr. Sawaya about the Lego tour that he had undertaken in Australia this year and he responded that it had been met with wild success there in both Sydney and Melbourne. He said that he felt privileged to be able to 'bring his art to a whole new continent' and said that he was surprised and overwhelmed by the turnout at both grand openings of his gallery show. He said that, while he has a show criss-crossing America and has been to quite a few different States and cities, the Australia tour opened up a whole new world to him and opened up his Lego art to a whole new group of people.

Mr. Sawaya's Agora Gallery Exhibition.

'Bath'

Bath
Bath

Although Lego now makes more than a thousand different sizes and types of bricks, Mr. Sawaya prefers to use the simple, basic bricks that he had when he was a child. He feels a nostalgic pull towards them, and also feels that there is a bit of magic in taking something so simple and basically rectangular and using it to create something spectacular and 3 dimensional.

Mr. Sawaya keeps about 1.5 million bricks at his Manhattan studio at any given time in a wide variety of colors. He says that he has never gotten a specialized brick or specialized color made for him from the Lego company. "From my point of view, if a child goes to one of my exhibitions and sees my artwork hopefully they will be inspired. "I don't want a child to look at my sculpture and say that they could never do something similar because they can't get the same special bricks that I use". "I use the same Lego bricks that anyone can get in a Lego set or order from the Lego website".

I'm the one that gets to play with the bricks all day. Nathan Sawaya

Nathan as a young boy with his Lego city.

Nathan Sawaya
Nathan Sawaya

While growing up in Veneta, Oregon in the 70's & 80's Nathan Sawaya had few friends as the nearest neighbor kid was over a mile away. His parents indulged his creativity with many things, including Lego bricks, although Sawaya says that his favorite toy "was probably crayons". He had a large collection of Star Wars figures also and would use the Lego bricks to make forts for them. Sawaya said that he was a happy kid, and always happy to play.

Sawaya told me that he loved the Legos because they allowed him to explore his creativity. They were his respite from reality. He admitted to liking all construction toys but having a fondness for Lego. "If I wanted to be a rock star I would build myself a guitar, if I wanted to be an astronaut I would build myself a spaceship". Sawaya says that once children realize the potential of the Lego bricks to make almost anything their creativity can be unleashed. "Lego is a toy that has no limits and allows you to create other toys from it".

'My Boy'

My Boy
My Boy

When I asked Mr. Sawaya what his favorite piece is, Sawaya responded that "for me the favorite that I have is always the next piece that I am working on". He added that he puts a lot of effort into every sculpture and he's done literally hundreds since he began sculpting, making it a bit difficult to pick any single creation as his 'favorite'.

"Yellow has become sort of iconic" he said, referring to one of his earlier pieces made entirely from yellow Lego bricks. "I've seen it in so many places. Books, albums covers. There are people who use it on their logo, as their avatar, and it's even been used on the back of a fashion designer's jacket". "People relate to it", he said, "there's something there."

Nathan Sawaya - Lego Artist.

Nathan Sawaya in his studio
Nathan Sawaya in his studio

Mr. Sawaya at work in his Manhattan studio.

'Winter Night'

Winter Night
Winter Night

When I mentioned that my son Alex likes playing with the Lego Digital Designer Mr. Sawaya was impressed, saying that the beauty of the computerized Lego building program was that anyone could have literally millions of Lego bricks to build with at no cost whatsoever.

I told him that Alex and I sometimes have 'contests' where we see who can come up with the coolest designs using the program. Recently, sitting side by side on our computers, we each 'built' a green-house of our own design, which Mr. Sawaya thought was a wonderful idea and a lot of fun.

Sawaya told me that he also believes that working with Lego bricks can be 'therapeutic', especially when you have spent many hours on a single sculpture.

Larger than Life.

I asked if he sent 'instructions' along with his sculptures to which Mr. Sawaya laughed and said that he includes a small note with each that says "some assembly required".

I also inquired as to whether his artworks were solid or hollow inside. Sawaya said that, while he does use some bricks to make structural elements and keep his creations structurally sound, for the most part they are completely hollow. "The reason being", he said "is that they don't need to be solid and if they were they would be so heavy". As if to clarify this statement he mentioned that some of the larger sculptures needed 2 or 3 men to lift them.

Speaking of heavy Lego creations, one of the biggest sculptures that Sawaya has ever made was a T-Rex skeleton that was 20 feet long. He also has done a 'billboard' for the film "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" that was 53 feet long and 15 feet high and used over 500,000 individual Lego bricks.

Mr. Sawaya on The Colbert Report. - August, 2007

Mr. sawaya & Lego Mr. Colbert
Mr. sawaya & Lego Mr. Colbert

In August of 2007 Mr. Sawaya was interviewed on The Colbert Report where he found host Stephen Colbert to be fun, very smart and very witty. Before his interview, while in his dressing room, Mr. Colbert stopped by and introduced himself. Sawaya told me that he had never been more nervous for an interview because of a brief encounter with Colbert before the taping of the show.

"Colbert stopped by my dressing room a little while before taping and introduced himself, saying 'Hi, I'm Stephen, big fan of your work. Just wanted to give you a heads-up because my character, Stephen Colbert thinks you're kind of weird, thinks your art is kind of stupid, and he thinks art in general is just pointless". Talk about a surreal experience.

Although nervous Sawaya said that the interview was a lot of fun and that, even though only about 6 minutes of the interview were seen on TV, he was actually interviewed in front of Colbert's audience for over 20 minutes. During the taping he presented Colbert with a life-size sculpture of himself made entirely with Lego Bricks, which the host seemed to truly enjoy.

Sawaya has also been on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and been interviewed by David Letterman.

"Stephen Colbert thinks you're kind of weird, thinks your art is kind of stupid, and he thinks art in general is just pointless"

Making the NYC Lego LIons.

"Lego is a toy that has no limits and allows you to create other toys from it". Nathan Sawaya

Easy Rider inspired chopper.

Lego Cycle
Lego Cycle

Sawaya glues together all of the Lego bricks that make up his sculptures. He didn't name any brand, saying that the glue he now uses is one that he chose through trial and error. "I tried a bunch of different glues and I came up with a concoction that works the best", he told me.

He said that he like to remind kids that, once glued, they can't play with the Legos anymore the way theta they were intended. For his artwork it was a bit different, and he found that it was important to glue his sculptures together because he ships them all over the world and wants to make sure, ironically, that they all arrive in 1 piece.

An Interview on British TV. - Inside Mr. Sawaya's Studio in NYC!

Talk about 'building' a website.

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