The LEGO Artist

Sawaya posing with one of his life-size LEGO sculptures.

Nathan Sawaya is 37 going on 12. A really talented 12-year-old.

Growing up, Sawaya played with a 36-square-foot LEGO city. While most kids eventually trade in their bricks for video games, Sawaya brought the LEGOs to college – and then to law school. He rediscovered LEGOs not as a toy, but rather as a medium.

Now, his studio holds about 1.5 million colored bricks at any time. The New York corporate lawyer-turned-LEGO artist traded in a six-figure paycheck and health benefits to build 3-D life-size sculptures at $15,000 a pop.

In addition to building his own projects, which are featured in art museums across the country, Sawaya works on commission. Read on for some of his weirdest requests — including one from Pete Wentz.

Self-proclaimed title: Brick artist
Age: 37
Graduated from: New York University; New York University School of Law
Pricing: Sculptures in museums and galleries sell in the $10,000 to $20,000 range
Previous job: Corporate lawyer in New York City

Many of Sawaya’s sculptures, like “Trapped,” are about transition and metamorphosis.

Number of bricks in a life-size sculpture: 15,000 to 25,000 pieces, depending on complexity and body positioning.

Time frame per project: My first projects took me three to four months at a time. Now, I can build a life-size figure in two or three weeks.

How does a Wall Street lawyer begin to tinker with LEGOs? At the end of my workdays, I needed a creative outlet, so I would draw, write, paint, and sculpt. One day, I wondered if I could sculpt larger-scale pieces with LEGOs as the medium.

You happened to have huge tubs of LEGOs lying around? I saved my bricks from when I was kid, so I just dug them out of my closet. As I started working on larger pieces, I bought more online or in stores.

How did it segue from a hobby to career? I began to put photos of my creations on my website, and soon, it crashed from all the traffic. I said, Okay, there’s something here. So I made the decision to play with bricks full-time.

How did your family and coworkers react? Mostly, my friends and family were very encouraging. Of course, there were people who made fun of my adventure, and I learned to cut those negative relationships out of my life. It’s important to surround yourself with support.

Describe the creative process. It must be more than dumping out a pile and going to work, right? Yes. There’s tons of sketching involved; in fact, I always carry a sketchpad with me and am constantly jotting down ideas. I put a little glue on each individual brick, which is a very consuming process. My girlfriend says I go into a trance while I work.

Watch Nathan Sawaya building at top speed:

In 2004, you won LEGOland’s nationwide search for a master model builder for the 128-acre children’s theme park. What was the selection process like? I went through several rounds of different building challenges. During one, I was given a pile of bricks and was instructed to build a sphere in 45 minutes.

Did you get a lifetime supply of LEGOs? Unfortunately not. I still buy my bricks like everyone else.

Something people don’t know about your job: If a project doesn’t look right, I might have to chisel away at entire sections – days’ worth of work – since it’s all glued together. That can be heart-wrenching at times.

What are you working on right now? I’ve found lots of ways to take bricks in new directions, like into fine art galleries and museums. I currently have two museum exhibitions in North American and one in Australia. I’m also producing a film, which has been extremely eye-opening. [Editor’s note: check out yesterday’s post on a freelance filmmaker!]

Did you love LEGOs growing up? My very accommodating parents allowed me to have a 36-square-foot LEGO city in my house.

Sawaya working in his studio, where sculptures adorn the walls.

What about now? Do bricks consume your apartment? I have a separate art studio for my work, which holds about 1.5 million LEGO bricks at any time.

How are they organized? Into clear bins, sorted in rows by shape and color. It’s a bit like walking into a rainbow. I listen to pop music to keep me jumping while I work.

Weirdest request for a sculpture: Pete Wentz requested a giant bumblebee. Another really weird request was for a life-size nude woman with the head of a cat. I passed on that project.

Inspiration for your personal projects: I put lots of emotion into my artwork. Many are about metamorphosis and going through transitions.

“Yellow” is Sawaya’s most iconic sculpture.

Favorite sculpture: I always say that my favorite project is my next one. But the most iconic is probably “Yellow” (see right). It’s been widely used with and without my permission; fortunately, since I used to be a lawyer, that’s all worked out.

Hours per day spent with LEGOs: 12 to 14.

Your job must be inspiring for little kids. I’ve found an interesting market of art collectors who enjoy my work because their kids love it. They’ll tell me, “I have a Damien Hirst, I have a Warhol, and my kids don’t care. But I bring home a Sawaya, and they get excited.”

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Nathan Sawaya discusses the building blocks of the biz. Pun intended.
For LEGO work, a background in arts and engineering are very helpful. Kids often ask me how they can be like me, and the first thing I tell them is to practice and think big. It sounds cliche, but I came up with the concept of creating fine art out of LEGOs because it hadn’t been pursued very much. Also, be sure to surround yourself with a very supportive group.

Follow Nathan on Twitter at @nathansawaya and check out his hilarious segment on The Colbert Report. Don’t forget to check out the No Joe Schmo Facebook page for more photos of Nathan and other featured artists!

PLUS: Think LEGO building is cool? Here are 10 other cool jobs you wanted as a kid…

All photos courtesy of BrickArtist.com.