Nathan Sawaya Turns LEGO Bricks Into Art

LEGO bricks are used to recreate some of the art world’s most famous masterpieces

What to Know

  • "The Art of the Brick" is a traveling exhibit at the Perot Museum Feb. 23 - Aug. 18, 2019
  • It is the most elaborate display of art constructed using only LEGO bricks created by renowned contemporary artist Nathan Sawaya.
  • The exhibit features a hands-on, interactive brick gallery with building challenges, games and open play spaces.

When his parents refused to get a dog for then 10-year-old Nathan Sawaya, he built a life-sized dog sculpture out of LEGO bricks. As a corporate attorney in New York City in need of a creative outlet, Sawaya returned to his favorite childhood toy. As demand for Sawaya's LEGO sculptures increased, he became a full-time artist. A broad spectrum of Sawaya's LEGO artwork is now on display in the Texas debut of "The Art of the Brick" at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science through August 18.

Sawaya worked with other materials, but he discovered the artistic challenges and the engaging appeal of LEGO bricks.

JerSean Golatt/Perot Museum of Nature and Science
Alexandros of Antioch’s "Venus de Milo, Augustus of Prima Porta," and Michelangelo’s "David" take center stage in the art history gallery of "The Art of the Brick" traveling exhibition.

"I just like how it looks. I like the straight lines. I like the sharp corners. When you see my artwork up-close, you're going to see it's a lot of sharp corners, right angles, little rectangles and squares. Then when you back away from it, all of those corners are going to blend into curves and that's the magic of using LEGO bricks," Sawaya said. "It makes the art accessible. It's the democratizing of the art world. Using a toy makes it something everyone can connect to. I think LEGO bricks is something we’re all snapped together. Everyone has snapped together a LEGO brick at one point or another so you can have this familiarity with the art that you might not with other mediums."

Sawaya uses those bricks to recreate some of the art world’s most famous masterpieces. LEGO brick versions of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and Leonardo Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" are featured along with a dramatic stained glass rose window made of the beloved toy in the first gallery of the exhibition. There is a LEGO brick sculpture garden featuring Michelangelo's "David" and Alexandros of Antioch's "Venus de Milo."

JerSean Golatt/Perot Museum of Nature and Science
The fan favorite "Yellow" is a life-size sculpture of a man ripping his chest open with thousands of yellow LEGO bricks cascading from the cavity. ("Yellow" has gained pop-culture fame appearing on fashion labels, album covers and even in Lady Gaga’s music video "G.U.Y.")

The exhibition also includes Sawaya's innovative original work. A LEGO man swims through a pool of blue LEGO bricks. A series of colorful skulls are part of the "Through the Darkness" gallery. Sawaya's most famous work "Yellow" is a life-sized man ripping his chest open to reveal thousands of yellow LEGO bricks. The sculpture has been featured in Lady Gaga’s music video, "G.U.Y." Children gasp upon seeing a 20-foot-long T. rex made of more than 80,000 LEGO bricks. Sawaya recreated the iconic Pegasus for the exhibition's Dallas stop.

Each sculpture begins with an idea, often sketched out first. "Getting to that point where I have an idea and visualizing it in my mind from the very start about how it is going to come together. I want to picture the finished piece before I put down the first brick," Sawaya said. "When you're working on a human form, there’s the challenge about getting the curves to look right using rectangular pieces. When doing something like a dinosaur skeleton, there's different challenges. There's really challenges of engineering to get it to look proper, but to also stay together."

JerSean Golatt/Perot Museum of Nature and Science
A 20’ long "T. rex" – made of more than 80,000 LEGO® bricks – is a signature piece in "The Art of the Brick" traveling exhibition.

Because "The Art of the Brick" has traveled to more than 80 cities worldwide, Sawaya considers the physical needs of sculptures. "And then while I'm building, I'm actually gluing as I go because since the works travel all over the world, I want to make sure they arrive in one piece," Sawaya said. "If I make a mistake, I actually have to take out a hammer and chisel and chisel it apart. That's part of the process. You have to have patience for this job."

Color is a special challenge. "I can't blend colors really well so if I'm a painter and I take some blue paint and some yellow paint and I mix them together, I get green paint. But if I take a blue brick and a yellow brink and I snap them together, there's just a blue brick and a yellow brick. They don't become green," Sawaya said.

JerSean Golatt/Perot Museum of Nature and Science
Internationally renowned contemporary artist Nathan Sawaya visited Dallas for the preview of "The Art of the Brick" traveling exhibition.

The inability to blend colors impacts his approach to his original works and his recreations of famous artwork. "A lot my sculptures are monochromatic for a very important reason and that is I want the viewer to visualize themselves within the sculpture or within the emotion of the sculpture. To do that, I don't want it to look like any specific person, so I use monochromatic people," Sawaya said. "When I'm replicating something that exists in the real world then it's a whole different project. It's finding what hues in the LEGO palette I can use to replicate the hues in the original work."

JerSean Golatt/Perot Museum of Nature and Science
Children unlock their inner engineers at the hands-on creative space The Science of the Brick featured in "The Art of the Brick" traveling exhibition.

Sawaya purchases bricks directly from LEGO, storing nearly seven million bricks in his Los Angeles studio. He uses standard sized bricks, the same bricks used in the final gallery of the exhibition, "The Science of the Brick," where visitors can try making their own masterpieces. Sawaya's advice for budding LEGO artists is simple. "Hang onto your imagination, use your creativity and go for it brick by brick," he said.

MORE: PerotMuseum.org - The Art of the Brick

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