A man in red stumbles, trudges forward. He’s pushing off of a wall entirely of green, from which five arms are reaching out for him, grasping him, trying to pull him back into the green abyss.
This is “Grasp,” a 30” x 67” x 30” sculpture by Nathan Sawaya a.k.a. The Brick Artist. He got his moniker because his medium of choice is the children’s toy, LEGO. That’s right. The more-than-five-foot-tall “Grasp” is comprised of 28,383 LEGO bricks—red for the man, green for the wall and arms—and absolutely nothing else.
Sawaya, a former corporate attorney practicing in New York City, began building and creating with LEGO bricks as an after-work stress release. Deciding his work was marketable, he set up a website showcasing his art and commissions began to roll in. Sawaya left his job once he realized not only that he might be able to live off of his art, and more importantly, that it was not just a hobby, but something he wanted to dedicate himself to full-time.
“Grasp” specifically addresses this choice and what he overcame to go through with it. For that, it’s especially meaningful to him.
“[The piece] depicts a human form pulling away from a wall, but out of the wall several arms are reaching and grabbing at the figure. [It’s] a direct result of the people in my life who told me I was crazy and making a mistake by leaving my day job to go create art out of a toy. I struggled to pull away from that negativity.”
It did and did not begin with LEGO.
It did because LEGO is one of the first toys many of us play with as children; it’s one of the first problems we solve; most importantly, it’s one of our first creative expressions.
It didn’t because, as an adult, there were other outlets. When Sawaya set out to use art as a release, he started more traditionally—sculpting with mediums such as clay and wire. They were fine, but they were lacking. Sawaya found that his passion lie in using a toy from his childhood not for nostalgia or simplicity, but for a reason encompassing of both: accessibility.
“My mission is to inspire others to find their own creativity,” he explains. “Creating art out of LEGO allows people to connect with the art on a familiar level. The toy is universal so it also allows my artwork to transcend languages and cultures.”
But the accessibility of his work isn’t simply a byproduct of The LEGO Company’s far-reaching influence on popular culture. Rather, Sawaya’s pieces are universal in their composition just as much as in their materials.
“Grasp” included, many of his pieces take on the human form while obscuring defining features and veiling it in bright colors so as not to evoke one person or ethnicity, giving each piece an every-person, and making it feel more like you’re looking at a soul than a human. “I enjoy creating monochromatic figures with a human essence to them. It allows the sculpture to be more universal without looking like a specific individual.”
He cites the human forms of sculptor Antony Gormley as well as the works of Tom Friedman as direct inspiration for his own work. Both artists often employ homogeneous mixtures of materials to create disproportionately expressive and evocative sculptures, and it’s not difficult to see how Sawaya was inspired by them to create his monochromatic humanoids.
In fact, it was while pouring over a book of Friendman’s art that Sawaya made the decision to leave his day job and pursue art full time. “His fantastic sculptures from household items were inspiring, and I realized that my sculptures out of LEGO bricks were a possibility.”
Sawaya gets a rush from creating art that speaks to people so fluently because of the sub-textual message of encouragement of his pieces and his medium. “My favorite thing about using LEGO bricks,” says Sawaya,” is seeing someone inspired by my artwork go and pick up a few bricks, and start creating on their own.”
For Sawaya, the process is much more than just picking up a few bricks and riffing. Everything is mapped out ahead of time, or as he puts it, “I envision the finished sculpture before I put down that first brick.” But in practice, it’s much more than a vision that guides Sawaya to the final product. Each of his pieces are designed and tested through sketches and various calculations to ensure there are no unforeseen issues during the build.
The builds themselves take two to three weeks. “I spend full days working in the studio. [I’ve] been told that I go into a bit of a trance while [I’m] working.” His original studio is in New York, but an additional Los Angeles studio is larger and more accommodating to bigger pieces. Additionally, the Los Angeles studio houses “over 4 million LEGO bricks, all sorted by shape and color.”
Sawaya completed a recent collaboration with photographer Dean West entitled In Pieces. The collection is comprised of hyper-realistic composite photographs shot by West that incorporate objects that Sawaya has created from LEGO, often indiscernibly so at first glance: The towel in the background of a pool scene. One rogue cloud in a desert landscape.
Sawaya uses this collaboration, and the direct juxtaposition of the two artists’ forms, to explain the precision associated with his form. “Thousands of bricks are glued together to form recognizable objects much like [West’s] assembly of pixels in a digital image.” Seamless collaborations like this align Sawaya’s very new subform directly with photography, a long respected medium, and allow him to anchor himself firmly in the fine art world, flying in the face of a conversation that always threatens to bubble up around him: can LEGO be art?
Sawaya, however, goes a step further to disregard it. “No one has ever said to me, personally, [that LEGO cannot be an artistic medium], but I recognize that there may be people out there who might think that. I don’t believe there are rules to art, so implicitly, one cannot define what might be a medium.”
Or as he puts it concisely in the closing sentence of “Grasp’s” identification card, “Also, those people can stick it.”