Interview with Mr. Nathan Sawaya

Nathan Sawaya is an award-winning artist who creates awe-inspiring works of art out of some of the most unlikely things. His global touring exhibitions, THE ART OF THE BRICK, feature large-scale sculptures using only toy building blocks: LEGO® bricks to be exact. His work is obsessively and painstakingly crafted and is both beautiful and playful.
Previously a NYC corporate lawyer, Sawaya is the first artist to ever take LEGO into the art world and is the author of two best-selling books. His unique exhibition is the first of its kind to focus exclusively on LEGO as an art medium and has broken attendance records around the globe. Sawaya is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, recognizing his artwork and cultural achievements.  In 2014, with the belief that “art is not optional”, Sawaya founded The Art Revolution for the purpose of making art a priority in our schools and our homes. He has been a speaker at Google Zeitgeist, TEDx, Yahoo! and numerous universities. 
Nathan Sawaya has earned a top position in the world of contemporary art and has created a new dimension by merging Pop Art and Surrealism in awe inspiring and ground breaking ways. His art consists of playing with the material, color, movement, light and perspective.

Q. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your life at law school?

I grew up in a small town on the west coast of the United States. My inspirations for art started when I was very young. My parents always encouraged creativity, so my sister and I had a lot of creative toys growing up. We would paint with water colors, we would draw with crayons and we would make things out of clay. We also had other construction toys that allowed us to build things. But LEGO became a favorite toy because we could build anything we wanted. 

Eventually I moved to New York to attend college at NYU. I earned a degree in political science. After I completed my undergrad from NYU, I didn’t have faith in pursuing art as a full time career so I turned to the study of the law. I attended NYU School of Law in New York City. I enjoyed my time with my fellow law students, but still had a dream of being an artist one day. 

Q. As a law student, did it appear to you at any point that you would venture into another profession, aside from the Law profession? Would you consider your experience at law school to be an asset to you now with such a unique and unconventional career switch? 

During law school, I didn’t necessarily focus on venturing into another profession. In fact, I worked hard at becoming a corporate attorney, and then went on to practice corporate law for years. It wasn’t until later in life that I decided to leave the practice of law to become an artist.

That said, my experience at law school definitely helped me as an artist. Law school taught me critical thinking and risk assessment. I was able to use those skills in selecting projects, as well as conducting the business side of being a self-employed artist. There are a lot of aspects to running one’s own business, and the legal training was a very big help in that regard.

Q. How did you get your start as an artist after you got your law degree? What does an average day in your life as a LEGO Artist look like?

As a corporate attorney, I found myself doing mergers and acquisitions for a law firm in Manhattan. I worked with some great people, but it was not the most creative job, and it didn’t require very much imagination. After a long day at the office, many lawyers would go to the gym, others would go get a drink. But to blow of some steam, I found I needed more of a creative outlet. Sometimes I painted, sometimes I drew and sometimes I sculpted. I sculpted out of various media. I even did a series of sculpture out of candy. But then one day I challenged myself to create sculpture out of this toy from my childhood: LEGO bricks. I just kept building after work and on the weekends.  Building sculptures was my way of relaxing. Eventually my apartment was packed wall-to-wall with art. I put together a collection of sculptures on a website as a virtual gallery.  Eventually I was getting commissioned to create works of art.  And the day the website crashed from too many hits, I decided to make a change in my life.  I left my day job behind to become a full time working artist. My colleagues were fairly supportive of me leaving, and maybe a bit jealous.

It was scary, but also completely liberating. I was in control of my own destiny and the first morning I woke up after leaving the law firm was the beginning of what has turned out to be a truly thrilling adventure.

Currently, an average day of a LEGO artist starts with coffee and checking my email. It is truly exciting to read all of the various commission requests I receive for artwork from people all over the globe. Eventually I make into my art studio, where I have over ten million LEGO bricks all sorted by shape and color. I usually have two to three different art projects going on at the same time on any given day. I make a plan for the day and work on a particular project. The days can be long, but it doesn’t feel like work, because I love what I do.

Q. Since you created this new art form, many people have followed your path and have become a LEGO artist. You started the Art Revolution Foundation to help make art a priority both, at school and home. Could you tell us more about this initiative and how you went about it? What impact has it created?

Art Revolution is about encouraging creativity. It is also about putting art back into schools.  In the US, many school curriculums are suffering by eliminating art programs.  We want to use Art Revolution to help support schools by donating art supplies.  There is plenty of data showing that students do better in schools when art is part of the curriculum.  But art should not only be for students.  Everyone, young and old, should take some time out of their day to create.  Create something. It will put a smile on your face.

Q. With continuous tours and art shows all over the world, do you have time to create new pieces on the go? How do you manage to keep up with the demands considering that LEGO art requires great discipline and precision?

Having multiple art exhibitions touring the globe, I get to travel around the world a lot. I get to meet different people, go to different locations and experience different cultures.  And I use those moments for inspiration. I carry a sketch pad to jot down ideas as I go. Finding that inspiration is key in developing new works. And between the traveling, I am disciplined about finding time in my art studio to create new works. I use the ideas from my experiences as a starting point.

Q. Your art pieces are on display in the world’s most famous locations all over the world, you have started a new genre of art form and attendance at your tours has been record-breaking. Did you ever foresee this? What were some challenges that came along with such a unique career switch from law into a niche medium of art like LEGO art?  

As an artist, my goal was to elevate this simple childhood toy to a place it had never been before: into the fine art galleries and museums. I appreciate the cleanliness of the LEGO brick: the right angles and 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. That is one thing that drew me to the brick. I also enjoy seeing people’s reactions to artwork created from something with which they are familiar. So many people can relate to it since it is a toy that children have played with.   

But no, I did not foresee the opportunity to share my artwork with so many people around the world. It has been a dream come true. Quite surreal. 

One of the biggest challenges when I made the switch from law to art was whether I could maintain an amount of business that would allow me to continue as an artist. I worked hard at creating new art pieces and taking on commissions so that I could pay my bills and not have to go back to being a lawyer. 

Another challenge came with the realization that art galleries did not necessarily take my artwork seriously since it was made from a child’s toy. There was a lot of skepticism at first and it took a while for galleries and museums to acknowledge what I was doing and accept it into the art world.

Q. Most of our readers are students of the law or are law graduates. What advice do you have for those who want to take up a career based on their passion but feel limited to the conventional career options in the legal field?  

It is important to have a plan in place. It took me two years before I was ready to make the switch. That said, I encourage you to do so and follow your passion. If you want to quite your nine to five job to become a rock star, I say “go for it!” But be sure to take a guitar lesson or two first.

Throughout my own personal journey, I have learned that art is not optional.  It’s not a nice to have, it’s a must have. When I was an attorney, I wasn’t happy, but creating art made me happy and I eventually changed my career to focus on making art.  I’m not the only one who is positively impacted by exercising creativity.  It has been proven time and time again that students do better in schools when they are exposed to art.  Higher test scores and graduation rates result when art is part of the curriculum.  And creating art is often used in many types of therapy and recovery.  Creating art makes you happier.  Creating art makes you smarter.  Creating art makes you healthier.  Clearly, creating art makes you a better person.  I want to inspire people to make art, so that they make a better world.  Lofty?  Sure, I know, but why not?

Find out more about Mr. Nathan Sawaya – 

Disclaimer – All views and opinions expressed in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the LAABh Foundation or the individuals and institutions associated with LAABh Foundation.

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