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Artist Nathan Sawaya Says He Builds Interest and Wonder in Art by Building With LEGOs

Danny Gallagher
Artist Nathan Sawaya sits next to one of his "Park People" sculptures made entirely out of LEGO building blocks. It's part of the traveling art exhibit The Art of the Brick. The exhibition opened Saturday at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Artist Nathan Sawaya builds sculptures and wall paintings out of LEGOs, the toy building block that's been a creative outlet for kids and adults and the bane of shoeless parents since the 1930s.

Sawaya says his reproductions of classic pieces of art — which are on display at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science with his traveling exhibition The Art of the Brick — have a reach that traditional forms and mediums can't connect to as well as LEGOs.

"It's about its appeal to the viewer, to the audience, to democratizing the art world so folks can connect with this type of art because it's something they are familiar with," Sawaya says from his studio in Los Angeles. "If it's marble, they can appreciate it, but they don't have slabs of marble at home. There's a connection and that connection is key."

The people who flock to Sawaya's world-renowned creations are probably one of the widest-ranging demographics in the art world. The crowd that attended a special preview of the exhibit at the Perot Museum included a large group of adults, teenagers and small children instead of the usual art critics and buyers.

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A group of kids learns about ancient sculptures like the prehistoric Japanese Dogu sculptures and ancient Egyptian Gayer-Anderson cat sculptures that Sawaya re-created entirely out of LEGO bricks at the Perot Museum.
Danny Gallagher
Sawaya wants to harness his art's accessibility to improve art education and awareness. He founded The Art Revolution Foundation to increase arts education in school that's driven by his mission statement that "art is not optional."

It seems to be an effective steppingstone. Some of the kids who got to take an early tour of the exhibit at the Perot Museum did more than just marvel at Sawaya's re-creations of classic paintings like Edvard Munch's "The Scream" and Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Some took the time to read the placards and learn more about the original pieces' ages and the people and civilizations who created them.

"That's a perfect example of opening the door to the art world to younger kids," Sawaya says. "It's through a medium they are familiar with and they can have that conversation about the Mona Lisa who might not get it, but there's this doorway they can step through together. All the work connects to kids because of the medium, but I also hope it connects to adults as well."

Sawaya, a native of Oregon, grew up playing with LEGOs like most American kids and used them to develop his passion for art and to express his creativity. When he got older, he worked for the corporate world in New York City as a lawyer, but he still longed to find more creative work in his spare time with painting, sculpting and building original LEGO pieces.

"When I was trying to make this decision to try and make an art career using LEGO bricks, I looked to artists like Tom Friedman, who uses very familiar household objects to make fantastic works of art, and Antony Gormley, who uses human forms," Sawaya says. "I had to learn and I'm always learning and I'm still learning. I had LEGO bricks as a kid, for sure, but it took awhile to hone my skills, to learn how to do curves, to understand what it takes to get the detail out of these little rectangular pieces. A lot of working with LEGO bricks is self-taught."

Sawaya says he started trying to get his LEGO art into galleries and fielding commissions for LEGO sculptures shortly after launching his website. The internet helped drive interest to Sawaya's work, and he started getting commissions from celebrities for LEGO caricatures, like the band One Direction and late night host Stephen Colbert, companies and art collectors from all over the world.

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Isabelle Neely, 11, of Dallas attempts to draw a LEGO re-creation of Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring."
Danny Gallagher

He also started getting invitations to show his original works at galleries and museums, the most famous of which is "Yellow," featuring the torso of a yellow man ripping open his chest as a pile of LEGO bricks tumbles out of the cavity. Most of Sawaya's original LEGO creations explore the human form to express ideas and themes that range from satirical, scary or just plain silly.

He also teamed up with photographer Dean West to create a series of bleak moments of American life occupied by a LEGO sculpture that can only be identified up close for a collection called "In Pieces."

The build time varies from piece to piece and requires a great deal of careful planning. Sawaya epoxies the bricks together as he builds them and mistakes happen sometimes after months of work.

"You've got to be patient," he says. "The size and complexity are going to determine the amount of time it takes. Sometimes it doesn't look right and you're chiseling it apart and you lose days worth of work and that's the heartbreaking part, but I go in knowing it's always a possibility that it might not work. I might have to take it apart, and that's where the patience comes in, I suppose."

It also requires a literal thick skin with LEGOs, especially in a studio housing 10 million pieces that can easily be found by stepping on them with bare feet, something Sawaya says he's done so many times that they don't even hurt anymore.

"I've done it so much that I don't even feel it," he says. "I could walk across a floor of them and be fine. I was hiring an assistant, and I asked if she could walk across a floor of them."

The exhibit runs through Aug. 18
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The sculpture "Yellow" by Nathan Sawaya
Danny Gallagher