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"The Art of the Brick" Celebrates Everyone's Favorite Danish Plastic Brick Toy

The Art of the Brick includes Lego replicas of famous works such as Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's David, and Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night.
Nathan Sawaya's Lego sculpture, Yellow, will be on display at "The Art of the Brick."
Nathan Sawaya's Lego sculpture, Yellow, will be on display at "The Art of the Brick." The Art of the Brick photo
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Nathan Sawaya has turned playing with toys into a lucrative career. The former New York City corporate lawyer creates sculptures made entirely of Lego bricks and glue and showcases them around the world in his "The Art of the Brick" exhibition.

"The Art of the Brick" — which opens at the Olympia Theater on Saturday, January 27 — includes a 20-foot-long T. rex skeleton and replicas of famous works of art such as Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's David, and Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night.

Sawaya's most famous work, however, is an original known simply as Yellow. The life-sized yellow sculpture features a man ripping open his chest with his hands, causing 11,000-plus Legos to spill out.

"It came from years of me not following my passion and wanting to pursue a different life," Sawaya tells New Times of his inspiration for Yellow. "The figure is literally opening itself up to the world. But like many of my works in 'The Art of the Brick,' there are infinite valid interpretations. I give very simple titles to my works, like Yellow, to identify the artwork, but really to provide room for the viewer to have their own interpretation. I want the viewer to have a role."

In 2014, Lady Gaga featured Yellow in her nearly 12-minute-long music video for "G.U.Y.," off her third album, Artpop. In preparation for the video, the pop star came to Sawaya's studio in Los Angeles and tried on a red Lego dress he created. The dress didn't appear in the video, but it will be on display during the exhibition's Miami stop.

Sawaya's other celebrity fans include former president Bill Clinton, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, and retired tennis star Andre Agassi. Having a famous fan base has helped raise his profile (Sawaya also has served as a consulting producer on Fox's Lego Masters), and these days, his work sells for five to six figures.

Leaving behind his law career wasn't as crazy as some initially thought.
click to enlarge
Nathan Sawaya's Lego reproduction of Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night
The Art of the Brick photo
"When I expressed my plan to pursue Lego art full time, I got mixed responses from people," Sawaya says. "My friends and family were fairly supportive, but I did have some friends and colleagues who questioned my sanity and thought I was making a mistake. Even some people who I thought would be supportive turned quite negative."

"Part of that is about people not wanting to be left behind. As lawyers working long hours in a firm, it can be hard sometimes to watch someone break free. But I had found my passion and was going to pursue it no matter what."

Plastic Lego bricks have been around for 75 years, but Sawaya was among the first to turn the toy into a mainstream art form. That's not to say the art industry embraced his work right away.

"It took some time for the art world to open up to the idea of Lego art," Sawaya says. "When I first was talking to folks about what I did, I think they pictured what they saw in toy stores: trains or castles. I wanted to show that I could put emotion into the pieces and that the toy was just the medium. So, my art really started to get noticed when I created human forms, especially with a surreal twist."

"Eventually, the art world has embraced Lego as a medium. You see Lego being used by artists all over the world."

Sawaya builds the sculptures in his studios in Los Angeles and New York. There, you'll find an inventory of around ten million Legos organized by color and size. The amount of time he spends on each sculpture varies, but all require incredible patience. (The T. rex consists of 80,000-plus Legos and took three months to build.) It's not uncommon for Sawaya to take a chisel and hammer to a sculpture to fix it.

And yes, he has stepped on countless Legos barefoot, which many parents can attest is notoriously painful.

"I have stepped on so many Lego bricks I don't even feel it anymore," Sawaya says.

"The Art of the Brick. On view Saturday, January 27, through Sunday, March 31, at the Olympia Theater, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami; theartofthebrickexpo.com/miami. Tickets cost $16.90 to $37.90 via feverup.com.
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