Story & photos by Marianne Salza
Nathan Sawaya shapes rigid, plastic LEGO blocks into intricate and dynamic figures in his exhibition, The Art of the Brick, on display in the Back Bay through Sunday, April 23. The contemporary artist is returning to Boston following sold-out shows in Faneuil Hall in 2014. Twice as large, this installation features over 90 of his newest sculptures assembled from nearly one million LEGOs that are individually glued together.
“I think the role of an artist is to inspire. I hope that by sharing this work with the community, they are inspired. I have found over time that art is not optional,” a message Sawaya emphasizes throughout the exhibition. “If you have a little art in your life, you’re going to be smarter.”
Visitors can explore three floors of original artwork and re-imagined masterpieces. The collection includes a description and the number of LEGOs used in each design.
On the first floor, one can view a version of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (3,493 pieces), and a three-dimensional, full-scale, mosaic-like replica of Gustav Klimt’s oil and gold leaf painting, “The Kiss” (18,893 pieces), of a couple embracing on a bed of grass and flowers.
Stand beside “Dinosaur Skeleton,” (80,020 pieces), a 20-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex, which took Sawaya an entire summer to construct; or peer into “Pop-Up Book” (19,822 pieces), in which a castle appears from the middle of an open story book.
The third floor is an interactive area. In “Pink Dreams” (102,938 pieces), sit on a pastel, wingback armchair that is surrounded by whimsical accoutrements like a heart-shaped pillow and giant soft serve ice cream cone. Families can design cars to race on a track in the creative LEGO brick play stations.
Sawaya grew up in a small, Oregon town. He has loved playing with LEGOs since he was 5-years-old; even bringing the nostalgic toys to college and storing them beneath his bed as a source of comfort.
Later in life, Sawaya discovered LEGOs as an art medium. He still enjoys receiving sets as gifts, as he finds building according to instructions to be relaxing. The 1×2 jumper — with one stud in the middle of a plate — is Sawaya’s favorite LEGO brick to use because it provides him options for details.
“I don’t feel the passage of time when I’m building. I go into a trance; and I am building away. I’ll do 10-12 hours with no problem. Office work for 10 hours was mind-numbing and draining,” groaned the former New York City corporate lawyer. “This is a different type of work that I really enjoy. I found my passion.”
Sawaya’s skills in contract negotiations have helped him as a businessman. His LEGO sculptures have been on display in over 100 cities in 24 countries.
“The role depression played resulted in certain works,” revealed Sawaya, whose sculptures reflect the construction of identity. “There are themes of emerging, transition, and metamorphosis that come out of the time I was a lawyer.”
When Sawaya initially began approaching galleries to feature his LEGO creations, he received opposition; once he began using movement in human form, the art world began to open. He was approached by Warner Brothers Pictures to create a 1:1 scale replica of the Central Perk coffee shop in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Friends sitcom.
“I was trying to showcase how you could put emotion into the art,” explained Sawaya. “It had to be life-size for it to work.”
In The Art of the Brick, Sawaya collaborated with photographer, Dean West, to produce brick-infused images. He imitated the flow of fabric in “Red Dress” (62,750 pieces), an asymmetrical cocktail dress with a sweetheart neckline that is worn by a model in one of West’s photographs.
“In this gallery, called ‘In Pieces,’ we see the integration of the work into photography. That was pure joy because I got to take LEGO in a new direction. It wasn’t just putting art on a pedestal,” said Sawaya. “That was an amazing time for me.”
View the Art of the Brick in the newly-renovated museum space located at 343 Newbury Street (previously Forever 21) Sunday-Thursday 10am-6pm, and Friday-Saturday 10am-8pm. Tickets cost $24 for children and $28 for adults. Visit www.ArtOfTheBrickExhibit.com for more information.