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If you were born into an Indian family, chances are you’ve encountered the Arts vs. Science debate. Desi parents are obsessed with careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). I remember buying all kinds of science kits and “educational” toys for my own son when he was little, but one toy that successfully bridged the gap between “fun,” “cool” and “educational” was LEGO® kits.
Sometimes, ideas that originate in science seep out into the broader culture, taking on a life of their own. The right brain/left brain is one such example. So, when artist Nathan Sawaya’s traveling exhibit, The Art of The Brick, arrived in San Francisco, I wanted to share his remarkable talent with all the wonderfully creative and brilliant right-brainers out there.
What Sawaya does with these colorful little bricks is remarkable, with over 70 original sculptures as well as reimagined versions of some of the most renowned masterpieces, such as Michelangelo’s David, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa—all made entirely with LEGO.
Sawaya is the first contemporary artist to take LEGOs 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 LEGOs 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 painted, drew, and sculpted. 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 lifesize 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 LEGOs 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 LEGOs 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 Lego software to help deal with the physics for more complicated pieces.
Some of my favorites:
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) 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 have been decorated with eerily accurate dark tan bricks that match their tone perfectly.
In My Boy (piece count 22,590), loss combines with love. “One of the most frequently recurring themes in my art,” says Sawaya. He completed 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 suggests figures in transition. It represents the metamorphosis I am experiencing in my own life. My pieces grew 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.
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org