Artist Nathan Sawaya talks Super Heroes

The Art of the Brick: DC Comics had its worldwide premiere in November at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney — the exclusive Australian venue for this exhibition. Nathan Sawaya talks to MAAS Magazine Editor Jo Lyons about finding the LEGO Super Hero within.

Nathan and Darkest Knight
Artist Nathan Sawaya with his LEGO creation of The Darkest Knight. Photo by Mitch Haddad.

How long have you been working with LEGO?

For more than a decade now I have been using the LEGO brick to shape my creativity and build my artworks. However, building out of LEGO is something that has always made sense to me. As a child, and even later in life when I was a lawyer, clicking the bricks together was satisfying. It was like snapping bits of my life together in a way that felt quite orderly.

As a lawyer, when I came home at night I would need a creative outlet. Some nights I would draw, some nights I would paint, and some nights I would sculpt. One day I challenged myself to sculpt something out of this toy from my childhood. I started doing large-scale sculptures. Most nights I would find myself snapping bricks together even before I took off my suit or ate dinner. It felt good after a long day of negotiating contracts to build something with my hands.

Slowly but surely my New York apartment started to fill up with sculptures. The artwork consumed almost every room. I posted photos of the works online to showcase the artwork in a virtual gallery to friends and family. When my site crashed one day from too many hits, I realised it was time to leave the law firm and pursue my passion to become a full-time artist. I quit my job as a lawyer, opened an art studio and took the leap of faith.

Youre the first contemporary artist to bring LEGO into the art world. What prompted you to begin working with LEGO bricks?

Like most people, I began using LEGO when I was a child. It was a great outlet for my imagination.

As an artist, I wanted to elevate this simple childhood toy to a place it had never been before: fine art galleries and museums. The goal was to transcend models of cars, trucks and towns and explore deep, meaningful themes that would be juxtaposed with the elementary and common uses of the brick.

I like using the bricks as an art medium because I enjoy seeing people’s reactions to artwork created from something with which they are familiar. Everyone can relate to it since it is a toy that many children have at home. But it is more than that. My favourite thing about using LEGO bricks is seeing someone get inspired by my artwork to go and pick up a few bricks and start creating on their own.

There are over 2000 different LEGO elements available. Why do you seem to prefer to work with the simple 2×4 classic brick?

I use many different LEGO elements for my artwork, although I do focus heavily on a lot of the various rectangular shapes. I appreciate the cleanliness of the LEGO brick. The right angles. The distinct lines. As so often in life, it is a matter of perspective. Up close, the shape of the brick is distinctive. But from a distance, those right angles and distinct lines change to curves. It’s all about perspective.

What is the largest LEGO sculpture you have ever made?

In terms of the sheer number of bricks, the largest sculpture is the Batmobile vehicle in the new Art of the Brick: DC Comics exhibition. However, I’ve built life-size dinosaur skeletons, Hollywood billboards and other large-scale installations.

The Art of the Brick: DC Comics is quite a different exhibition to your previous work. What is it about the DC Comics characters that drew you to them?

Justice League Halflings 8mg_2
The Justice League from The Art of the Brick: DC Comics. Photo by Mitch Haddad.

I was looking to create a brand new collection of artwork and wanted to explore themes of good and evil, right and wrong. This led me to stories of heroes and villains and the pages of comic books. The whole world knows Superman and Batman, and their epic battles with Super-Villains. These characters are powerful inspirations. And besides, I wanted to challenge myself to construct Wonder Woman’s invisible plane!

Tell us about your favourite Super Hero.

As a child, I grew up watching the animated TV program Superfriends. My favourites were the popular Justice League characters. But as I dove deeper into DC Comics, one of my favourite characters became Bunker, who uses the creative energy of his mind to build brick-like objects. There is something about that power that strikes a chord with me.

What era of comics is the biggest inspiration for your DC Comics creations?

DC Comics in the Silver Age (about 1955–70) has some of the very best moments in comics history, but I also like much of the current work.

What is the process involved in creating your larger sculptures?

It starts with inspiration. Many of my works centre on the phenomenon of how everyday life, people and raw emotion are intertwined. I want my art to captivate people for as long as it can keep their attention. Once I am inspired with a concept, I draw it out. I am always carrying my sketch pad so that I can draw out my ideas as they come to me. Before I start building, I try to plan out as much as possible. I want to envision in my mind what the finished sculpture will look like before I put down that first brick. As I start building, I actually glue the bricks together as I go. This involves painting a little bit of glue on each and every brick. If I make a mistake, well, I’m good with a hammer and chisel. Once the sculpture looks the way I had envisioned it, I know that I’m done.

The amount of time it takes to complete a sculpture depends on the size and complexity of the piece. Some can take a few days, and some can take a few months. For example, a life-size human form can take up to two or three weeks.

Have you ever had a major LEGO accident/mistake and had to start again from scratch?

I don’t know if ‘start again from scratch’ ever really applies because creating art is one continuous process. Ideas flow from one work to the next. The knowledge gained from experimenting on this particular piece is then retained and used in a later piece. Of course there are moments when I’m working on a piece and it doesn’t look right, so I will remove entire sections and start over, but that is part of the process. You need a bit of patience for this job.

What are the hardest parts of a character to build with LEGO bricks?

With this new exhibition focusing on Super Heroes, I found that building capes out of LEGO bricks is quite challenging. Using these rectangular bricks to try to replicate thin fabric blowing in the wind turned out to be quite difficult.

Flash Streak
Streak, Nathan Sawaya, 2015, Photo by Mitch Haddad.

Is Superman faster than the Flash?

I bet I can beat both of them at building a LEGO Batmobile.


This article first appeared in MAAS Magazine, December 2015. To access a digital version of the magazine go here. To receive a printed copy, become a MAAS member here.