ST. LOUIS — Some kids invent imaginary friends. Nathan Sawaya built them from Legos.
“When I was 9 years old and I wanted to get a dog, my parents said, ‘You’re not getting a dog,’” recalled Sawaya. “So what did I do? I built myself a life-size dog. That was my first ‘aha’ moment. I realized I don’t have to build what’s on the front of the box. If I wanted to be a rock star, I would build myself a guitar. If I wanted to be an astronaut, I built myself a rocket ship. There were no limits.”
Today, Sawaya builds human forms and dinosaurs, skyscrapers and flowers, all from standard Lego bricks. The Magic House in St. Louis is showcasing some of his best work at the exhibit, “The Art of the Brick.” The show is free with admission and runs though Jan. 27.
New Yorker Sawaya, 39, is a former mergers and acquisitions attorney who never outgrew his love for Legos. He kept a box of Legos hidden under the bed of his New York University dorm room and accepted commissions for his Lego art even after he had established a successful law career.
On the day his website of Lego art crashed from too much traffic, Sawaya decided it was safe to strike out as an artist.
“I hadn’t had the confidence before,” Sawaya said. “I walked down the long hallway to my boss’s office and said, ‘I’m going to play with toys full time.’”
Since then, Sawaya has toured the globe and made sculptures of boy band One Direction for The New Yorker, a globe for President Bill Clinton and a life-sized Conan O’Brien superhero for Comic Con.
“I found my passion, but what was even better was the way people were responding,” said Sawaya. “It was different than if they were looking at a marble statue. When people get done seeing my art, they tell me all the time they go home and create something themselves from Legos. They may appreciate the marble sculpture, but it’s very unlikely that they have a slab of it at home.”
Though the Lego Group, the Danish company that has manufactured Legos since 1949, now sells bricks in a variety of shapes and sizes, Sawaya prefers the old-school rectangular pieces. Yet his sculptures have curves and depth.
“That’s the sort of the magic,” said Sawaya. “There are the distinct lines and very sharp corners but when you back away all of those sharp right angles blur into curves.”
Sawaya glues the blocks into place for shipping. He buys in bulk directly from Lego and organizes them by color in large plastic boxes. He currently has 1.5 million Legos in his studio.
“I buy them just like everyone else, but I can order 500,000 red bricks and they’ll ship them right over,” said Sawaya. “But there are times I have to run to the local toy store just because I’m running short.”