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  • Writer's pictureMona Shah

The Art of the Brick: Transforming Lego’s into Art

We’ve all payed with LEGO as kids, but what artist Nathan Sawaya does with these colorful little bricks is remarkable. His travelling exhibit, The Art of The Brick, has arrived in San Francisco, with over 70 original sculptures as well as reimagined versions of some to the most renowned masterpieces, such as Michelangelo’s David, Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa--all made exclusively with LEGO.

Sawaya is the first contemporary artist to ever take LEGO® into the art world as a medium. His work is obsessively and painstakingly crafted and is both beautiful and playful. “This exhibition engages the child in all of us, while at the same time, highlighting sophisticated and complex concepts. I use Lego in my art because the toy is accessible. Chances are, you probably don’t have a slab of marble or a ceramic kiln at home. But I bet you have some LEGO bricks.”

Born in Colville, Washington and raised in Veneta, Oregon, Sawaya’s childhood was a happy one, and like most kids, he had LEGO growing up. His parents were always encouraging creativity and when the then 10-year old Sawaya asked them for a dog (which they didn’t get him) he decided to build a life-size dog out of Lego bricks.

As an adult, he attended New York University, and became a corporate lawyer doing mergers and acquisitions at a firm in New York City. The job was stressful and when he needed to de-stress he used to paint, draw and sculpt. One day, he challenged himself to sculpt with Lego bricks and that was the beginning of his career as a LEGO artist.

His series of works on art history were intended to be a way for adults to speak to kids about the art world. “I first learned adjectives through School House Rock. I learned to count to ten through Sesame Street. I learned about gravity through my Slinky. Imagine if a child learns about art history through LEGO!”

The SF exhibit include some of his more notable pieces, Yellow, a life size sculpture of a man ripping his chest open with beautiful sunshine yellow LEGO bricks cascading out from the cavity and Dinosaur, a 20 foot T-Rex made with 80,000 monochromatic bricks. Everything is built using LEGO’s in the colors that famed Danish company makes available, he does not alter them in any way. Every artwork states how long it took him to make it as well as the piece count, and since they are shipped worldwide he glues his LEGO’s together once he places them. That means, if he makes a mistake, he does have to cut them apart! Sculptures are first sketched on brick paper or a Lego software to help deal with the physics for more complicated pieces.

My favorites were:

The Swimmer (piece count 10,980) The solitary blue color is striking and is visually vivid. It took him only 15 days to make and shows a swimmer in the water, with droplets of water all around. There is a great sense of movement emerging from the plastic. Beside the statue are the artist’s words, “Swim against the current. Follow your path. Find the courage within.”

Pop-up Book (piece count 19,822) that has a castle pop-up with a beautiful poem etched in the bricks.

The Kiss (piece count 18,893) has a couple embracing, their skin mostly shielded by ornate mosaic smocks. The brick replica is amazingly accurate, the front and back of their clothing has been decorated with eerily accurate dark tan bricks that match their tone perfectly.

My Boy (piece count 22,590) Loss combine with Love. “One of the most frequently recurring themes in my art,” says Sawaya. He complete this one in two months.

One of the galleries is devoted entirely to the human form. “My favorite subject is the human form. A lot of my work suggest a figure in transition. It represents the metamorphosis I am experiencing in my own life. My pieces grown out of my fears and accomplishments, as a lawyer and as an artist, as a boy and as a man.”

On the way out don’t miss an innovative, multimedia collection of LEGO brick-infused photography produced in tandem with award-winning photographer Dean West.

Sawaya’s ability to transform LEGO bricks into something new, his devotion to scale and color perfection, the way he conceptualizes the action of the subject matter, enables him to elevate an ordinary toy to the status of fine art. Prepare to be wowed.

The Art of the Brick: LEGO® Exhibit

Savings Union Bank, 1 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108

Tickets and information here.


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