Here is our full interview with Nathan Sawaya, the groundbreaking LEGO artist, whose latest exhibition at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood may be his most ambitious project yet.
The Art and Culture Center of Hollywood has become like something of a summer home for your work; this will mark your fourth run here. Do you feel this gallery has had an impact on raising awareness of your work?
Definitely. When you look back, when I was just starting out and doing my first solo exhibitions, no one had any reason to believe in my work, and they took a chance on me. That was definitely really important.
What can you tell me about your new show, “Nathan Sawaya: In Pieces,” which opens June 7?
I collaborated with photographer Dean West, and we took on a project over the course of three or four years, where we wanted to integrate my sculpture into his hyperrealistic photography. It was an interesting project; we decided to just take a trip across the country; we took numerous road trips, is how it ended up being, where we were scouting locations and sketching out ideas for imagery. And eventually, we put a plan together and came up with these portraits.
So it was a collaboration that was unlike what I’d done before. I’d worked with other artists, but this was a whole new medium. I’d never done anything with a photographer, especially one at Dean’s level. It was pretty exciting. So what I’ve done with this exhibition is that it’s going to have some of my original works, but we’ve also integrated this project with Dean. There will be, I believe, seven giant portraits on the wall, and then the sculptures that are within the portraits I’m also bringing to the exhibition space. So you’ll really surround yourself with the art. You’ll see the portraits, the prints — it’s almost “Find the Lego Sculpture” within the prints— and then the sculpture will also be there in the space.
How did you decide which locations to use?
We were looking for some desolation, and we found a lot of it in the southwestern U.S. We found some abandoned hotels and abandoned houses for some of the shots. As the project grew over time, we also shot in theaters in Los Angeles and Toronto. We found a city scene in Toronto. We found an abandoned railroad station. It was random places all over North America that we used for these backdrops, and we set up the shots to really focus on the subject, which was one or two people we’d bring into the image, and they’re questioning themselves—questioning where their lives have gone. There’s a bit of openness, but also really emptiness, to their faces, and that’s what we were trying to do.
Sounds like the show is reflective of the impact of the Great Recession.
To a certain extent. This project evolved quite a bit from where we started to where it finished. It was really just about, first let’s try and work together. Then, how can we combine his modern photography with my sculptures? That’s how it started. Then we kind of wanted to take these individuals and put them in this empty space, and discovered a kind of inverted gaze, an aloofness to them. That makes up a fair amount of the show.
How did this all begin for you, the idea of creating art from LEGO bricks?
We could go back to n I was 5 years old, I suppose. But when we really get into it, it was just wanting to explore doing a large-scale piece out of this child’s toy. I had done other media at the time. I was doing a series of sculptures out of candy. I just thought about this child’s toy, and I just experimented with it. And it just took off. I really enjoyed creating with something that has such distinct lines and corners, yet creating curves and human forms out of it. From there, I kept experimenting and kept seeing what I can do, and it’s worked out rather well.
There have been other LEGO artists that have emerged in the past few years, but I can’t imagine it was a huge movement when you started. Did you always have a feeling that LEGO would work for you, both artistically and financially, to make a career out of these bricks, or did you have doubts about that initially?
It was a big risk when I started. When I started creating large-scale sculptures that were being shown, no one was doing it. Museums and galleries laughed at me for a while. So when we talk about Hollywood taking a chance on me, there’s a lot of truth to that. Most museums at the time were like, you do what? LEGO art? I think in their minds, they pictured cars and trucks, or little castle sets that you see at the toy store. And I would say no, I’m putting some emotion into this. I’m using these toys, yes, but hopefully in a way you haven’t seen before. So it took a while to get galleries to come around and accept what I did then as real art.
What do LEGO bricks provide that other mediums might not?
It goes back to the relatability, the uniqueness of it. LEGO now is so a part of our culture. It was back then, but it was still more of a toy than anything else. We’re only talking 10 years ago. Now you’ve got LEGO video games, a LEGO movie, quite a bit of pop culture.
What are some of the most surprising creations you’ve conceived from LEGO—things that you might not think these bricks would naturally lend themselves to creating?
One of the best examples will be in this exhibition, and that is a red dress. And that was a real challenge, because when I’m working on a human form, obviously the curves have to be there, and that’s critical if I want it to look right. But from just a technical aspect, the human form is three-dimensional, but you’re not seeing the inside of the sculpture. When you’re working with a dress, I have to make the bricks as thin as fabric. I have to make it flow on both sides of the brick. It was a real technical challenge, and I spent well over a month on just the dress alone, and when it came together and it was finally done, I looked at the floor of the studio, and I think there were more red bricks on the floor that had been chiseled away than had actually been used in the finished dress. But I’m really excited of how it came together and how it looks. It’s one of my top pieces.
Have you taken any ambitious commissions?
Over the years, I like to pay my bills, so I’ve taken on some projects that I don’t know if I would take on these days. But it’s part of the fun. I’ve built things for Donald Trump. I built a giant bumblebee for Pete Wentz, when he was getting married. I built a giant hawk for Tony Hawk. It’s interesting how these projects have come together over the years. I think that one of the fun parts of my job, though, is I do get contacted every day by somebody with some idea. And it’s always fun to see what other people have on their minds. A lot of the commissions I get are from people wanting to express their own passions. And they want to see their passion in a unique way, so they come to me and say, ‘can you create it out of LEGO?’
Do you have a favorite piece?
The next one. That’s where my mind is. I‘m always thinking about the next project, for better or for worse, but that’s what excites me.
I’ve noticed that many of your promotional photographs, along with many of the works themselves, are very playful. Do you feel this is an element that is missing from a lot of modern art?
I do add a lot of whimsy to what I do, I think because I know my audience. I’ve been to a lot of art openings, and when you go to one of my exhibitions, you’ll see that it’s broad. You get the whole family there. Understanding the audience is important. And to that point, that’s probably why you don’t see me doing anything with drugs or alcohol, or subject matter that won’t be appropriate for a 9-year-old. Because I understand the audience is going to be made up of kids and families as well as modern art collectors.
Right—on the more serious side, your works also seem to address certain philosophical or abstract concepts. You’ll have a sculpture where a man’s hands seem to be falling off, or maybe there’s a stomach that has been exposed, and you can see the LEGO entrails. What do you want people to take away from these heavier pieces?
Those are the pieces where I really enjoy my work, because I really get to express myself. I think doing a replica of a large crayon is fun and cute and can be brightly colored, but it’s not really expressing what’s on my mind all the time. When I can do those human forms and put something together that’s really fun for my own expression, I think that’s where I really enjoy doing what I do. Each one has a different message. When you talk about the one where the hands come off, that is a very important piece: My hands are my tools. My hands are everything to me. They are what I use to create my craft. That’s essentially my nightmare. “Yellow” is a pretty iconic piece. It’s been an important piece for me in many ways, but also, so many people contact me about that piece. I think that it speaks to people in many different ways. It’s about opening oneself up to the world on one level. It’s interesting how many folks need to talk to me about it. It’s interesting how many people connect to it. And of course, kids like it because there’s guts spilling out of it.