At the latest installment of the WIRED + Marriott Culturazzi series in San Francisco, guests were inspired by the words of Chris Anderson and the works of artists like Nathan Sawaya. Nathan isn’t your usual sculptor, a former attorney Nathan is one of the most recognizable artists on the planet thanks in part to his choice of medium – the LEGO® Brick.
I had a chance to ask Nathan a few questions about his life and art and to answer some of the questions you all had for this remarkable artist.
Matt – I see a lot of people who are now in creative pursuits like yourself who fled the life of a lawyer. What is it about the legal profession that drives people away?
Nathan – Well right after college I still didn’t have faith in myself as an artist and so you bow to societal pressure to go do something, so I went to law school to put off making that decision. Coming out of law school I had a great chance to work for a big firm in NYC which I did but you know, years later I say that the worst day as an artist is still much better than the best day as a lawyer.
Matt – When you’re creating for yourself, based on your own inspiration do you tend to prefer architectural or more organic pieces?
Nathan – I like sculpture that I can put emotion into and to do something that no one has ever seen before. I like the human form, but I put a surrealist bent to it. So a sculpture of a man ripping open his chest for example is something I’ve done in the past. There’s more pressure actually in doing something that is representational because people expect it to look exactly like the subject.
Matt – Both you and your work are insanely popular. What is it about the brick medium that captivates so many people, including yourself?
Nathan – It’s amazing how universal the appeal of LEGO bricks is. I’ve been around the world and it’s really a global phenomenon. In South Africa I spoke with a lot of people who had never played with LEGO bricks growing up, but were inspired by the show to create their own art. They connect in a different way than they do with traditional sculptures. After you go to an art museum and see a marble statue, you usually don’t go home and break out the chisel. But people who attend my shows do go home and experiment on their own and that’s great. I’ve had parents email me and say that they took their kids to a show and as soon as they got home they dredged up the bricks and they haven’t seen them for days, and then they thanked me.
Matt – So you’re making art much more accessible than it has been in the past.
Nathan – Yes, there are people who go to my shows who have never set foot in a contemporary art museum before. It’s sad too that they haven’t and that’s why when President Clinton asked me to work with the Thea Foundation with him I was thrilled. Studies show that kids exposed to art in school perform much better on standardized tests than those who don’t. Art is such an important thing in the life of a child.
Matt – Where do you see yourself in five years, still working with LEGO bricks as your medium of choice or something else?
Nathan – I have worked with other media like candy but I’m best known for bricks and I’m going to stick with it. I got into this to see how far I could push it into the art world and now that it’s been generally accepted I want to see how far I can keep pushing.
Matt – What has been the strangest commission request you’ve had?
Nathan – Hard to choose just one, each request is unique to the individual and is usually something they love. So someone who loves skiing will ask for a skier or someone will want their dog represented. But the strangest request was someone who wanted a full size sculpture of a nude woman with the head of a cat. I didn’t take that commission.
Matt – Is there a permanence to your art or is it more like a Buddhist mandala, fleeting but beautiful work that creates lifelong memories?
Nathan – No, I glue my pieces so that they stay together and they’re made out of plastic so they’ll probably be around longer than I am. I want them to be permanent, they’re my babies.
Matt – Ok, these questions are from readers. Do you do any animation work and what is your favorite color and shape of LEGO brick?
Nathan – Animation – Just a little bit, but nothing for public consumption. I think they’re asking if I do more cartoony style, stop motion work and I haven’t but I might. I have worked with Dean West an Australian photographer and we’re collaborating on creating works using his amazing talent to capture my sculptures.
Favorite color and shape – My favorite color changes every day. Yesterday it may have been grey but today it’s red. It depends what I’m working on. I tend to lean towards greys and a lot of my work is monochromatic, so I may love working with grey day after day or I may never want to see the color again. As far as shape goes, in my studio I have 2.5 million bricks all arranged by shape and color. So when you enter it’s like walking into a rainbow. I can’t say which one I prefer, but I’m really glad I have access to all of them.
To see more of Nathan’s work, check out his touring exhibition – The Art of the Brick® – which has entertained and inspired art lovers and enthusiasts. Now, with four exhibitions touring North America, Asia and Australia, Sawaya is inspiring millions around the globe. Each exhibition focuses on LEGO as an art medium. The creations, constructed from nearly one million pieces, were built from standard bricks beginning as early as 2000. In 2011, CNN named The Art of the Brick on of the top 12 must see exhibitions in the world.
Please note: This post is the latest in a collaborative partnership with Marriott Hotels and Resorts. I was compensated for my time but as always, all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.