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New DMNS Exhibit Toys With The Concept Of LEGOs As Art

Courtesy of DMNS
'Yellow' by Nathan Sawaya

The exhibit “The Art of the Brick” has traveled to more than 20 countries, 100 cities and six continents, but LEGO artist Nathan Sawaya says he’s always wanted to have an exhibition at its current stop, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

“This is the first museum I ever visited,” Sawaya said at a recent press conference. “My grandparents brought me here when I was very, very young. It’s very special to have an exhibition here now.”

The exhibit features more than 100 works created by Sawaya spanning his entire career, including original works and representations of historical art. Each is entirely constructed from LEGO bricks.

Credit Courtesy Nathan Sawaya
LEGO artist Nathan Sawaya

Sawaya said his love affair with the interlocking, plastic blocks began like it does for most, during childhood. Growing up he gravitated towards the creative arts, but didn’t have faith in his work, so he pursued a career as a lawyer instead.

“I would come home and need a creative outlet and that’s when I discovered LEGO bricks again,” he said. “I started experimenting with them, creating new pieces.”

Later, he put together a website with a virtual gallery of his LEGO masterpieces. When the site crashed from too many hits, Sawaya realized there might be something more to this. So, he ditched the law career to pursue art full time.

“A lot of people told me I was crazy,” he said. “That I was making a mistake … That negativity really shocked me. It felt like people were trying to hold me back.”

That experience inspired the piece “Grasp.” The work features a man’s frame with several sets of hands holding him back.

Nathan Sawaya's 'My Boy 2'

So why LEGOs? Sawaya says it’s partly nostalgia, but there’s also a specific aesthetic that he gravitates to.

“I love the look of LEGO,” he said. “I love the right angles, those distinct lines. When you see my sculptures up close, you’re going to see all those right angles, those sharp corners. But then you back away from it, all those corners blend into curves. That’s kind of the magic of using LEGO bricks.”

It’s also a medium that is accessible and relatable to so many people.

“Everyone’s snapped a brick together,” Sawaya said. “And that’s the idea, to bring people into this exhibition and hopefully inspire them.”

It’s about getting people to think about math and engineering in new ways as well. That’s what made the idea a natural fit for a museum focused on science, said museum educator Keelin McCarthy.

“Science and art are not opposites,” McCarthy said. “They’re not even different enough to be opposed in any way. They are both methods of interacting and learning about the world around us and ourselves. Art requires planning, consideration, and a lot of trial and error - and so does science.”

A lot of engineering went into some of these pieces, Sawaya said. Particularly his sculpture of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Creating the enormous beast was “mind-numbing” at times, Sawaya said, adding that it took a lot of trial and error. Eventually, he used towers underneath to support the dinosaur’s massive body atop its smaller legs. Once done, he added wires to hold it up for display and removed the towers, which - while made of LEGOs - were “unsightly.” The sculpture is one of the few that breaks down into sections for easier transportation and installation.

Anyone who has built with LEGOs knows the potential of hours of work crumbling with the slightest bump. To make the works a little more stable, Sawaya glues each piece as he is working. That helps with potential mishaps but when the vision shifts or he makes a design miscalculation, it requires the painstaking process of chiseling sometimes days’ worth of bricks out.

“That can be a very heartbreaking moment, but that’s part of the process,” he said. “(It’s about) going into these projects with patience. These are not something that is going to happen overnight. It takes sometimes days, weeks and months to complete a project.”

Credit Courtesy of DMNS
Nathan Sawaya's LEGO version of Gustav Klimt's painting, 'The Kiss.'

Some of Sawaya’s most famous pieces are based on history’s greatest artworks, including the “Venus de Milo,” Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Munch’s “The Scream.”

But “The Art of the Brick” also focuses on original works.

Sawaya will debut his newest piece, “The Big Blue Swimmer,” as part of the exhibit. The sculpture features a swimmer emerging from a sea of blue LEGOs. The entire piece has 120,000 bricks. In his Los Angeles studio, Sawaya has a stockpile of more than 10 million LEGO pieces, all lined up along the walls in clear, plastic boxes and sorted by shape and color.

“It’s like walking into a rainbow,” Sawaya said. His aim is to elevate the LEGO so that others see it the way that he does. At the debut of “My Boy 2” - a sculpture of an anguished figure carrying a limp body - a woman began crying at the gallery.

“She was not seeing this as a LEGO toy,” he said. “This was a piece of art and she reacted to it.”

“The Art of the Brick” is on display June 25 through January 24, 2021 (tickets are free with the purchase of general admission through Labor Day) at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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