December 15, 2019
Whether it’s a giant Superman, the Statue of Liberty, or Michelangelo’s David, you name it, and chances are that Nathan Sawaya (CAS '95, LAW '98) has built it—out of LEGOs. As creator of The Art of the Brick, the world’s largest collection of life-size LEGO sculptures, Sawaya constructs colorful pieces that manipulate perspective and transform the way we see these tiny, nostalgia-inspiring blocks. His masterful creations have graced galleries across the globe including Sydney, Tokyo, London, and most recently, the New York Hall of Science.
But this wasn’t always the case. Once engulfed in the world of mergers and acquisitions of corporate law, Sawaya eventually threw in the tie and picked up the brick. So how does one make the jump from attorney to world-traveling LEGO artist? Here, Sawaya shares his story.
What were your inspirations growing up? What inspires you today?
My inspirations for art started when I was very young. My parents were always encouraging creativity, so my sister and I had a lot of creative toys growing up. We would paint with watercolors, we would draw with crayons and we would make things out of clay. We also had other construction toys that allowed us to build things. But LEGO became a favorite toy because we could build anything we wanted.
Inspiration is a tough thing to define, because it can come from different places. Fortunately, having multiple art exhibitions touring the globe, I get to travel around the world a lot. I get to meet different people, go to different locations and experience different cultures. And I use those moments for inspiration. I carry a sketch pad to jot down ideas as I go.
I was recently in Ilulissat, Greenland where I witnessed giant icebergs floating by in the bay. It was amazing to watch these beautiful natural formations glide by almost effortlessly. It was humbling to see this massive glacial floe simply drift out to sea. I was in awe.
Have you always been one to think outside the box or try something new?
One of the stories I write about in The Art of the Brick: A Life in LEGO is that when I was ten years old, I asked my parents for a dog, but when I couldn't get a dog, I built a life-size dog out of LEGO bricks. That might have been the first light bulb moment when I realized that I didn't have to build what was on the front of the box. I could use this toy to build anything I could imagine. If I wanted to pretend to be an astronaut, I could build my own space rocket. If I wanted to pretend to be a rockstar, I could build my own guitar. There were no limits, and I didn’t have to follow the instructions.
One of the many things you’re known for is your career jump from corporate lawyer to artist. What drove you to make the leap?
After I graduated from NYU undergrad, I attended NYU School of Law and eventually I became an attorney. I found myself doing mergers and acquisitions for a law firm in New York City. It was not the most creative job, and it didn’t use very much imagination. After a long day at the office, many lawyers would go to the gym, others would go get a drink. But to blow off some steam, I found I needed a creative outlet. Sometimes I painted, sometimes I drew, and sometimes I sculpted. I sculpted out of various media. I even did a series of sculptures out of candy. But then one day I challenged myself to create sculptures out of this toy from my childhood, LEGO bricks. I just kept building after work and on the weekends. Building sculptures was my way of relaxing. Eventually my apartment was packed wall-to-wall with art. I put together a collection of sculptures on a website as a virtual gallery. Eventually I was getting commissioned to create works of art. The day my website crashed from too many hits, I decided to make a change in my life—I left my day job behind to become a full time working artist. My colleagues were fairly supportive of me leaving, and maybe a bit jealous.
It was scary, but also completely liberating. I was in control of my own destiny and the first morning I woke up after leaving the law firm was the beginning of what has turned out to be a truly thrilling adventure.
What is your fondest memory from your time at NYU?
Hanging out in Washington Square Park as autumn began. It was always just a perfect time and feeling, like there was a litany of possibilities about to begin.
As a student, did you have a favorite study or hangout spot on NYU’s campus?
I remember studying a lot in the penthouse at the Brittany dorm. I also found myself at Bobst a lot.
Can you tell us about a course, professor, or NYU mentor that made an impact?
Professor Gilligan in the Politics department was very impactful, although he may not know that. He encouraged me to think differently and it has stuck with me throughout my careers.
What was it like to premier your work at the New York Hall of Science this year?
It is always exciting to have artwork on display in New York City and to have an entire exhibition is something special. The exhibition has been very well received and I only hope more people can get a chance to experience it.
You’ve created full scale dinosaurs, cars, and celebrities out of LEGOs, is there anything you wouldn’t build?
I believe that I can build anything out of LEGO bricks. But yes, I understand my audience, and there are certain subject matters which do not lend themselves to LEGO bricks.
What has been your most challenging piece thus far?
It is difficult to choose the most challenging piece because each piece has its own challenges. From the engineering that went into a giant dinosaur skeleton sculpture, to sculpting the curves of the human form using only rectangular bricks, there are always various obstacles to overcome. The most challenging piece right now is the thing I am working on right now. But you will have to wait to see that. Or check my Instagram for previews.
You’ve created remakes of famous pieces of art—The Scream, The Thinker, the Mona Lisa—to educate kids on art history. How did you arrive at this idea?
I liked the challenge of taking on the masters of art from all of art history and trying to replicate their works through this unique medium of little plastic bricks. The result has been a fantastic way to speak to younger kids about art history. For example, how does one talk to a five year old about the Venus de Milo? Well, if the sculpture is made from a medium that they are familiar with, like LEGO bricks, it opens the door to the conversation.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists at NYU?
Throughout my own personal journey, I have learned that art is not optional. It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. When I was an attorney, I wasn’t happy, but creating art made me happy and I eventually changed my career to focus on making art. I’m not the only one who is positively impacted by exercising creativity. It has been proven time and time again that student’s do better in schools when they are exposed to art. There are higher test scores and graduation rates when art is part of the curriculum. Also, creating art is often used in many types of therapy and recovery. Creating art makes you happier. Creating art makes you smarter. Creating art makes you healthier. Clearly, creating art makes you a better person. I want to inspire people to make art, so that they make a better world. Lofty? Sure, I know, but why not?
What advice do you have for someone who wants to make a career switch?
It is important to have a plan in place. It took me two years before I was ready to make the switch. That said, I encourage you to do so and follow your passion. If you want to quit your nine to five job to become a rock star, I say “go for it!” But be sure to take a guitar lesson or two first.