Wednesday, July 20, 2011

LEGO for a living: Nathan Sawaya


When I was a young warthog - as Pumbaa bellows in The Lion King - I played with soft toys. I had mountains of them: fluffy-tailed, floppy-pawed, long-eared, white-whiskered friends who had been stuffed from behind with polyester cotton wool. I had dolls with ropey hair and so many Barbies my mother had a storage bag for them, which she referred to as 'the Barbie basket graveyard.' I dressed up as Princess Jasmine, Snow White, Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Mickey Mouse. I was about as girly as they come... but I just could not resist my brother's LEGO.

It started when he was about two and I was about six. We had great big blocks of Duplo, which are basically large LEGO blocks you can't swallow. I'm sure somewhere in the world people with stubby fingers use them regularly, the same way they use phones with enlarged custom buttons. As my brother and I grew older and older, the LEGO blocks became smaller and smaller. Instead of piling them on top of each other until we made the tallest towers and ran out of blocks, we started creating fortresses (for my dolls) and having battles where Star Wars figurines (his) would ride Beanie Babies (mine) to the front line. The architecture of our castles became increasingly sophisticated. Farms were incorporated, as were moats, bridges and spaceships until one day, we started to drift away from it all. Real, living breathing pets were more interesting in the pre tween years, and then of course there were boys.

Yet apparently, not everyone outgrows LEGO. Nathan Sawaya never did. Perhaps this is because he grew up in a small town in rural Oregon (population 2500 people), so his parents had no choice but to be accepting and encouraging of his creative flair, where the nearest neighbours were 20 kilometers distant. Then again, nothing quite says 'we support you' like letting your child have a 36-square foot LEGO city in your home.

Fast-forward to his adult life and Sawaya became a corporate lawyer. 'Playing' with LEGO was just a hobby on the side. Inspired by Tom Friedman, an artist who creates sculptures using household items, Sawaya tried his luck with LEGO. After building a website from which  people could order commissioned pieces, he realised his artwork had become more than 'just a hobby.'  

"When my website crashed from too many hits I thought, ‘It’s time to quit the day job and focus full time.’  I opened an art studio in Manhattan and went for it,” he told The Weekly Review.

“I don’t think there is anything I can’t build out of LEGO. I see no limits, I like exploring, pushing the edge of the envelope. I think it’s relatable to a whole new audience,” said Sawaya.

Nathan Sawaya's collection of LEGO artwork is showcasing at Federation Square in Melbourne. His exhibition, titled 'The Art of the Brick,' demonstrates that the 37-year-old has mastered the colourful plastic blocks to a degree never before achieved by another. On display are recreations of buildings, including Athens' Parthenon and large-scale pillars; human portraits and life-size figures; a peace sign aptly named "Peaces"; recreations of famous works; LEGO framed LEGO 'paintings'; (see the raindrops above) and even a life size Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. The latter was especially awesome, in the true sense of the word.

Sawaya is obviously a perfectionist. The only logical explanation for his painstakingly precise and time consuming method of creating his LEGO masterpieces is that he has found a way to successfully channel Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Perhaps an alternative explanation could be attributed to astrology; as a Cancerian, Sawaya is supposedly imaginative, undertakes creative hobbies, and loves children('s toys). However, the most likely cause of Sawaya's exquisite LEGO forms is that he is patient and adores his work.  

To dismiss LEGO as a children's toy after seeing Sawaya's sculptures would be foolish. He has mastered the magic of building blocks and morphed them from objects kids swallow and adults step on to an impressive display that can be enjoyed by all ages. While young children walked around the exhibit with their mouths open in response to the sheer size of some of the creations, the rest of us popped our eyeballs back into our sockets as we stood, frozen, in awe of a bunch of blocks.

The way Sawaya uses rectangular bricks to create curved edges is almost implausible. Once, the Mythbusters team asked for Sawaya's helping hand in creating a LEGO ball, which they would later roll down a hill in the hopes of uncovering whether a LEGO ball of such a size would smash a car or not. The ball broke apart well before it hit the car. Sawaya's response was simple: "That's why I use glue."

One thing I was utterly shocked to learn is that Sawaya buys all of his LEGO, the same way everyone else does. This must leave a gaping hole in his wallet considering he keeps half a million LEGO bricks in his workshop inventory at any one time! Surely with the publicity he has given LEGO, the company could be more generous. Also worth noting is that Sawaya undertakes commissioned work. As an artist who loves a challenge, there are almost no boundaries as to what he will make, as long as the price is right of course. With this in mind however, he did once turn down the opportunity to create a life-size female nude with a cat's head from LEGO.

The great thing about Sawaya's work is that anyone can attempt it. Hopefully this exhibition will inspire kids to turn off their screens, get off Minecraft, stop stealing their parent's iPhones to play games, cease reading 'books' on iPads, refrain from listening to Rebecca Black and watching the annoying orange on YouTube, get less excited that Zelda Nintendo 3DS is coming out (c'mon guys that is so, like, 90s), and actually construct something tangible! Who knows? Maybe one day there will be a Play Dough revival, kids will remember how cool Puffin's 'Aussie Bite' chapter books were, or they might even go OUTSIDE and play! 

Sawaya has three children of his own. Paradoxically, after being surrounded by LEGO their entire lives, his kids have no interest in the coloured blocks.

As well as being truly awe-inspiring, Sawaya's LEGO sculptures tell a tale: people can succeed if they follow their dreams. If only more professionals would quit the rat race and start using their imagination, just think how wonderful this world would be.

* The Art of the Brick is open daily 10am-5pm (Fridays 10am-9pm) at Federation Square in Melbourne until September. Adults cost $15, children $10, families (two adults and two children) $45. 


  1. Their collections of unique handcrafted toys for children provide opportunities for open-ended play that plastic toys rarely match. We were in and out in 10 minutes, with gift wrapping.Peppa Pig

  2. New web site is looking good. Thanks for the great effort. Lego Blocks Toys