Nathan Sawaya makes a living playing with Legos.
Sawaya, 42, began his career as a lawyer on Wall Street. But he was constantly dogged by a yearning to do more creative work. Eventually, he happened upon his childhood Lego collection and used it to build massive sculptures, displaying the resulting works on a website.
One day, that website crashed because it got too many hits. That was the turning point. Sawaya walked away from law, turned to Lego, and never looked back.
Since then, Sawaya’s work has travelled the globe in the acclaimed exhibition The Art of the Brick. One of his sculptures was featured in a Lady Gaga music video. His Lego Oscar statue stole the show at the 2015 Academy Awards. He’s penned two best-selling art books and launched a nonprofit. And he’s still creating new works, brick by colourful brick.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I could keep doing this when I started,” Sawaya told INSIDER. “It was a great experiment that has worked out rather well.”
Here’s a look at some of his most famous works — and his journey to art world stardom.
'I'd been reaching out to art galleries who were not really getting what I did,' Sawaya said. 'At the time, when I brought up the idea of Lego art, people pictured cars and trucks and little castles -- things they saw at the toy store. People didn't see it as an art medium.'
But one museum did get it. In 2007, the executive director at Pennsylvania's Lancaster Museum of Art reached out to ask Sawaya he was interested in showing a solo exhibition. 'When I had that first exhibition, I treated it a lot like my last,' he said. 'I figured, well, this is my one shot.'
The Lancaster Museum of Art normally gets around 35,000 visitors a year, Sawaya said. His exhibition drew 25,000 people in just six weeks. 'It was mind-boggling,' he said.
That's when The Art of the Brick began to take off.
The exhibition has also broken attendance records worldwide, and CNN named the show one of the top ten 'must-see global exhibitions.'
And there's still plenty to come: The exhibition is scheduled to keep travelling through January 2017 (with more potential shows TBD). By then, Sawaya's art will have been exhibited for 10 straight years.
'One of the things that draws me is the look of using rectangular pieces,' Sawaya said. 'These very distinct lines, these sharp corners. When you see my sculptures up close, you see those right angles. But then when you back away, all those sharp corners blend into curves.'
The Lego medium also makes the art more accessible, Sawaya explained. 'So many different people in the world have played with Lego bricks, so that really democratizes the art,' he said.
That studio is where Sawaya creates painstaking works like this T-rex skeleton, which took three months to complete. He's also learned the hard way that he must glue together all the bricks in a sculpture.
'I have found that museums get grumpy when they open up a box and find a bunch of loose Lego bricks at the bottom,' he said. Now, in addition to being glued, Sawaya's completed works are shipped in specialised art crates by a dedicated team.
It's universally acknowledged that stepping on Legos is one of most painful things a human being can endure. But Sawaya has built up a tolerance to the sensation.
'I don't even feel it anymore,' he said. 'I step on a Lego brick every single day. It's just become part of the job.'
Sawaya is inundated with messages from budding artists who feel compelled to create their own Lego sculptures after being exposed to his work. Unsurprisingly, children are some of his biggest fans.
'I get tons of emails and tweets from kids who are like, 'I want to be like you. How do I get your job?'' he said.
'The exhibitions continue to grow and I keep continuing to add new work,' Sawaya said. 'We now have multiple exhibits touring the globe.' (One of the newest exhibits features incredible life-size sculptures of DC Comics superheroes.)
What's next for Sawaya? He wouldn't comment on his next project, but promised it would be exciting. Until then, follow him on Instagram for more whimsical, thought-provoking Lego creations.
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