Brick by Brick, Nathan Sawaya Creates Lego Art

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday December 4, 2022
Originally published on December 2, 2022

Nathan Sawaya
Nathan Sawaya  (Source:

Nathan Sawaya has a career that bridges the nebulous profundities of art and the primal fascination of a child's earliest playthings. What's more satisfying than to grab hold of the angular geometry of a building block and stack it, in its brightly colored solidity, on top of other blocks? Link that atavistic impulse from infancy with the more abstract meditations of the mature mind, and you get a sense for Sawaya's singular artistry: The creation of exhilarating works of art (such as a full-size dinosaur skeleton) that possess flair (as in his re-creation of Han Solo's imprisonment in a block of metal from the movie "The Empire Strikes Back") as well as the mysteriously moving properties of art in its most refined sense (an example of which is his famed "Yellow," a sculpture of a man ripping his own chest open with an expression that might be agony or ecstasy).

But here's the thing: Sawaya accomplishes all of this with Lego blocks — and he accomplishes a lot of it. With two studios going full tilt, five concurrent exhibitions, and a constant stream of commissions for new work, the artist has sustained his career by steadily contributing to his oeuvre since his original exhibit in 2007, and there are no signs he's slowing down. At this moment, his touring exhibit "The Art of the Brick" — recently in San Francisco, and now in Boston, at 343 Newbury St. Boston, through Sunday, April 23, 2023.

Sawaya is at the Boston exhibition even as we speak. The other exhibitions, he tells me, are "currently in Brussels and Budapest and Chicago," and, aside from these and the Boston exhibit, there's "one [that] is traveling right now."


EDGE: Do you travel with it quite a lot with your exhibits?

Nathan Sawaya: Yeah, there's actually five separate exhibitions on tour so I do get to go to a lot of these different locations. I try to attend all the openings. I want to make sure everything's looking sharp, well lit, that kind of thing.

EDGE: The Boston show has 70+ pieces. Multiply that by five exhibits, and that's getting up to around 400 sculptures! How many pieces would you say you have made in total?

Nathan Sawaya: I don't know. It's hard to keep track, because each show has anywhere from 80 to 120 [pieces]. It's various numbers that are always in flux, not to mention I take on commission work as well. My total production over the years is hundreds and hundreds; it might be in the thousands at this point. I've been doing this for a few years now.

EDGE: I believe your first show premiered in 2007.

Nathan Sawaya: Yeah, that's when the art of the bridge began at a small museum called the Lancaster Museum of Art. I barely had two dozen pieces for that first show. I honestly believed that would be my last solo show. I was like, "Oh, this will be fun. I'll do a solo show. This will probably be the last time I ever do anything like this, so let's go all out." I treated it like a wedding. I invited all my friends and family from all over the country and had a big rehearsal dinner the night before the opening. And yet here we are, years later, still on tour. It's been a dream come true.


EDGE: I was telling my husband about "The Art of the Brick" last night and the only thing I could think of to compare it to is "Body Worlds" — they also have been around for years and have multiple exhibits on tour.

Nathan Sawaya: That's a good comparison. And it's funny: When I first did a major show in New York City, they paired us with Body Worlds. It was in the same venue.

EDGE: You've been making three-dimensional sculptures out of different materials for a long time. What took you to Lego?

Nathan Sawaya: There's a nostalgia factor for me, personally, and for the viewer of the art, because everyone is familiar with this toy. I realized very early on that it was more than just nostalgia; it was that this type of artwork, the art I was creating with Lego, allows the viewer to connect with the art on a different level because of that familiarity with the media. If someone goes to a museum, they see a marble statue, they appreciate the marble statue, but when they come home they don't have marble they can chip away at. But so many folks do have Lego, or their kids do, and hopefully they're inspired and come home and get out their Lego bricks and they do a little creating. I do hear from families who say, "We took the kids, and they came home and they started building immediately." It's pretty cool that the work that I'm doing is inspiring others to start creating, because I do think the role of an artist is to inspire.

EDGE: I read each of your Lego pieces takes somewhere between four thousand and 10 thousand Lego blocks. How long does each individual piece take you to build?

Nathan Sawaya: Well, it depends on the size and the complexity. A human form can take up to two to three weeks, and we're looking at 15 to 20, 25,000 bricks.


EDGE: You must have a very well-visualized sense of what it is you want to accomplish before you start putting those bricks together, as well as an idea of the mechanics that are going to go into a piece.

Nathan Sawaya: There's some engineering that goes into every project. My father is an engineer, so maybe there's something genetic there. But I do want to have a pretty good idea of what that final piece looks like before I even put down the first brick. And when I do put down that first brick, I am gluing everything together, which means I have to get a hammer and chisel to tear it apart if I make a mistake — and yes, mistakes do happen. It's a heartbreaking part of the process, because what will happen is I will chisel apart hours, sometimes days' worth of work, just to be able to get it to look the right way.

EDGE: Do you find that when you do make those mistakes you've gone quite a way down the wrong path? Do you have to sometimes take a piece completely apart?

Nathan Sawaya: It just depends. Each project has its own challenges. There are so many different elements when it comes to Lego, but I focus a lot on the traditional bricks and plates that I had as a kid. When you see these pieces, there's all kinds of corners, it's a lot of sharp right angles, so I have to step back and look: Are these corners forming curves? When I do, say, a human form, the human form has curves, so I've got to make sure those curves are coming through, even though the piece is made out of all these tiny rectangular [pieces].


EDGE: Have there been ideas that you were keen on, but you found that you just could not physically realize it?

Nathan Sawaya: No, not really. Maybe the limitations are ingrained so much at this point that I don't think of what can't be done. But there are some projects where just the sheer size at times has [been a challenge]. I've pursued something or thought about something [big in scale] and just thought, "Wow, do I really want to devote years of my life to this project?" In this exhibition there's a dinosaur skeleton that's 18 feet long. It took three months to build. That's a significant amount of time to be focused on one thing.

EDGE: You mentioned a moment ago that some of your work is done on a commission basis. What would you say was your most memorable or challenging commissioned work?

Nathan Sawaya: Do you remember a TV show from the '90s called "Friends?" When "Friends" turned 30 I was contacted by Warner Brothers to build an entire replica of their coffee shop, Central Perk, out of Lego — life size! So, a full-size coffee bar, a full-size orange couch, coffee table, chairs, stools — everything that was on set on that TV show, I replicated out of Lego, and it used about a million bricks to do it. That was one of those commissions that's a perfect example of, "Wow, do you want to devote half a year of your life to this?"

EDGE: Your Lego works are serious sculpture, but they also have a sense of play about them. Do people tell you that your sculptures take them back to childhood and they feel like they're 12 again?

Nathan Sawaya: For sure. Because of that, there is now loose Lego bricks at the end of the exhibition. This is a very tactile medium, and people are so familiar with it, they want to reach out and touch it. For that reason, we have loose Lego brick at the very end so you can immediately get your hands on it and take a shot at doing some of your own creativity, because that's exactly it: People feel like a child again, they want to grab those bricks and build something.

"The Art of the Brick" continues at 343 Newbury St. Boston through April, 2023. For tickets and more information, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.