Interview: LEGO Artist Nathan Sawaya

LEGO master Nathan Sawaya should be no stranger to you. We’ve posted about several of his amazing projects, including his newest piece, a five-foot replica of a Blackberry Tour 9360. We were lucky enough to have the chance to delve into the brain of a true artistic genius. It’s not everyday you get to speak to a geek icon, so we were pretty psyched to have a chance to pick through his transformation from practicing lawyer to full-time LEGO artist.

I hope you enjoy reading through the interview as much as I did. Hit the jump for our complete interview with Nathan Sawaya.

Let’s start from the beginning, were you a fan of LEGOs from a young age or was it a hobby you picked up only into adulthood?

It was Christmas when I was five years old 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. Of course, these days my creations are a little bigger than a toy house.

Playing with LEGO growing up let me build anything I wanted. It let my imagination control the playtime. If I wanted to be a rock star that day, I could build a guitar. If I wanted to be an astronaut, I could build a rocket.

When I was around ten years old I really wanted a dog and my parents said I couldn’t get a dog, so what did do? I built myself a life-size dog out of bricks. It looked pretty good, but since I was just using my rectangular bricks, it looked kind of boxy in places. I guess it was a boxer.

When did you realize “Hey, I could really have something here?” Was there an ”ah-ha” moment?

About ten years ago I picked up my bricks from my youth and challenged myself to create a large scale sculpture. It was a giant self portrait in shades of black, white and grey. It got a great reaction from friends and family so I created a few more pieces and put photos of them up on a website, brickartist.com. Soon I was getting commissions from around the world and I realized there was something to this.

What was the driving force behind your jump from a career in law to the less-orthodox LEGO brick artist? Were you just ready for a career change? Was law not fulfilling?

Law was fine. I worked with some very nice people. But in the end I wanted to do something creative. I would come home from the law firm at night to relax I created three dimensional sculptures. And not necessarily out of LEGO. It was a creative outlet. Some people go to the gym at the end of the day, but I needed nightly artistic therapy.

One day, my website crashed from too many hits. I realized then that it was a good time to make a change and leave the law firm to go play with bricks all day. Also a good time to get a dedicated web server.

These days I can look back and say that the worst day as an artist is still better than the best day as a lawyer.

How many bricks were used to create your Blackberry piece?

I don’t keep track of the number of bricks used while building. Counting them would be too monotonous. However, I estimate the Blackberry piece uses around 18,000 bricks.

Is there a planning process before you start a piece? A LEGO blueprint?

It all starts with an idea. I need that piece of inspiration that is going to lead to something. Once I have that idea, I usually find myself sketching. I sketch out ideas to get a sense of how the piece will take shape. As the process continues, I sketch on something called Brickpaper which is a lot like graph paper, but instead of having little squares, it has little rectangles in the shape of LEGO bricks. Those sketches become the blueprint for the creation. There is computer software available to help with the building process and I do dabble in it from time to time, like LEGO Digital Designer, but often it is faster to work with the actual bricks in hand. In the end the most important step is putting the bricks down. The great thing about sculpting with LEGO is that if it doesn’t look good, I can take it apart and put it back together differently.

Do you have a mental preparation process when starting a new piece or do you just dive right in?

Mentally the process starts with enthusiasm about a new idea. When I get the idea, I will want to get started immediately. Eventually though there will come a point in the project when that gusto slowly wears off. Somewhere in the mid-way point of the project, I usually come to conclusion that the sculpture is going to look stupid and ask myself various questions such as “Why am I doing this?”, “Why am I wasting my life?”, and “Who in their right mind would ever want to own this?” I then have to push those questions out of my mind and keep working. That is usually accomplished with strong coffee and M&Ms. After persistent work, I will finally see the end in sight and will even get excited about it again. By the very end I won’t want to put the last bricks down because I don’t want the building process to end. This cycle repeats itself for every project.

Do you consider yourself a geek or do you feel LEGOs transcend the label of geekdom that they’ve come to encapsulate?

I don’t really apply labels to myself or the artwork. I’ll leave that to the art students. Of course, if geek-art is the new art movement, I’m glad to be a part of it.

How does one transition from just a casual LEGO builder into a LEGO artist? Was your transition just a natural sequence of events or did you actively work on building LEGO art?

I wouldn’t say that the transition has been entirely natural. I have had to work at it. There is a point in the career path where I had to say, okay, I am going to focus on being an artist. A big part of the transition occurred when business decisions needed to be made. I had to start focusing on things like budget, shipping requirements, contracts, representation, etc. At a certain point you realize, okay so this is not a hobby, it’s a career.

What advice can you give to the aspiring artist who is considering making the jump into the professional art world?

Jump carefully and slowly, but definitely jump. For me it took me a while to believe in my art. As I said, I did my artwork at night for a few years while I was a practicing attorney. I had to get to a point before I could make the leap, but once I did, there was no looking back.

Who were some of your artistic inspirations?

Artistically, I was and am really inspired by the artist Tom Friedman. Friedman works with a lot of household items to make fantastic sculptures. When I was trying to decide about my own artwork, I was reading a book of Tom Friedman’s art and it really gave me that push to try and become an artist myself. In fact, when I put together my book, The Art of the Brick Pictorial, I did so with a hope that it would inspire other kids to become artists of their own.

Does one piece stand-out as being especially challenging or trying to complete?

Every piece has its own challenges. But human forms have a specifically unique challenge, that’s probably why I love creating them. To create curves and definition all from little rectangular bricks I essentially have to trick the eye to see curves made up of essentially hundreds of little sharp right angles. If there is any one piece that really stands-out for me, it is probably one of my iconic pieces, Yellow (pictured-above), which depicts a figure tearing his chest open while bricks spill out. It has become a signature piece for me.

Do you have any future pieces planned? What are you currently working on?

I have some great projects coming up, but you will have to wait and see. You can always check my website, brickartist.com, to see what the latest is.

Anything else you think our readers should know? Any last words of advice?

For those readers in the New York area, I want to invite you to my gallery show at the Agora Gallery in Manhattan. The show runs from March 23-April 13. (www.agora-gallery.com) Otherwise, you can always check my museum tour schedule on my website to see if one of my exhibitions will be coming near you.

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