From across the room, they look like pixelated people. Well, their top halves, anyway. One is entirely green, while the other is blue. It’s only when you get up close that you see each bust, though pretty much life-size, is composed of LEGO blocks.
Though I grew up building up and tearing down LEGO sets, it was my girlfriend who first noticed them. We were walking through the Shops of Wailea, and she saw the green bust inside Eclectic Image Gallery. “That’s LEGO,” she said, and we walked in.
Both are striking busts. The green one, resting on a low table near the front door, depicts an individual holding his (or her–they’re basically androgynous) own face as if it were a mask. The blue one, displayed further in the gallery, shows the same type of person hoisting her (or his) head a few inches off the shoulders.
The two pieces come from artist Nathan Sawaya, a one-time corporate attorney in New York who today produces sculptures made entirely from brightly colored LEGO bricks. Though he’s become rather famous, Sawaya rarely puts his pieces into galleries. In fact, Eclectic Image isn’t merely the only place on Maui that shows his work–it’s the only place in the state of Hawaii.
“We met him here in the gallery,” said co-owner Becky Paschoal (her husband Matt is the other co-owner). “He and his girlfriend were here. They got married on the island. He was very modest, but his girlfriend left his card behind. His card was LEGO, and my husband and I looked him up. We were blown away.”
That was about two years ago. Since then the Paschoals have brought seven of Sawaya’s pieces into their Wailea Gallery (Becky said her parents also own Eclectic Image Galleries in Santa Fe and Sedona). Of those seven, five have sold so far, she said.
“They’re not seeing it [the work] as LEGO,” she said of the buyers. “They see it as a message.”
Sawaya’s work is “a surrealist mash-up of forms and artists,” the writer Scott Jones said in the 2012 book The Art of Nathan Sawaya. “Imagine Frank Lloyd Wright crossed with Ray Harryhausen, or Auguste Rodin crossed with Shigeru Miyamoto, and you start to get a sense of where Sawaya is coming from.”
Once a corporate attorney, Sawaya has told interviewers that a website crash at his firm prompted him to look for another line of work. He started working with clay, he told the blog Artsicle.com, then built an anatomically correct model of a human heart using Necco wafers. Later, he started wondering about the possibility of working with LEGO bricks.
“A lot of my work suggests a figure in transition,” Sawaya says in his book. “It represents the metamorphoses I am experiencing in my own life. My pieces grow out of my fears and accomplishments, as a lawyer and as an artist, as a boy and as a man.”
LEGO is a Danish toy company with roots that stretch back to a wooden toy workshop purchased by Ole Kirk Christensen in 1916. The first LEGO blocks, which date to the 1930s, were made of wood. After World War II, the company began making the bricks out of plastic, which at first were very unpopular. The blocks finally reached North America in 1961, when Samsonite agreed to build and sell them in the U.S. and Canada. The first “mini-figure”–the immensely popular little person that comes with many LEGO sets, didn’t appear until the late 1970s.
Though he uses very simple toys to build his pieces, Sawaya’s artworks are incredibly complex. For instance, the separation between the face/mask and head of his green sculpture at Eclectic Image is smooth and clean, and the head is an open box. But on his blue structure, the break between the head and shoulders is jagged, as though the break was a wrenching process.
The engineering alone required to build such large, realistic structures is remarkable–made all the more so by the fact that Sawaya eschews LEGO’s special and/or curved pieces. All of his works, regardless of his subject, come from the same regular old LEGO blocks that the company has been building for over half a century.
“I focus on the rectangular pieces mainly because there’s a nostalgia thing going on but also because there’s something about it,” Sawaya told Artiscle. “I love the distinct lines, the very sharp corners, and when you see the brick up close obviously you see all those right angles, but as you step away the curves become evident. That’s where the magic of it all happens.”
In 2007, Sawaya appeared on The Colbert Report. He showed pictures of some of his pieces, including “Yellow,” a bust similar to the green and blue sculptures at Eclectic Image but with the yellow individual tearing open his chest to reveal a pile of yellow LEGO bricks spilling out. He also presented his host with a life-size statue of Stephen Colbert, made from about 30,000 LEGO blocks.
He also told Colbert that his works aren’t quite as fragile as they appear. In fact, he said that each brick gets painted with glue. In the early days, Sawaya told NewYork.com last October, he would build a new structure, then tear it down when he was happy with it and glue it together. But these days, he said, he just glues as he goes. “If I don’t like how something looks, even if I’ve worked on it for a while, I have to chisel away days or hours’ worth of work, which can be heartbreaking,” he said. “But that’s part of the process.”
There are about 40,000 “adult fans of LEGO” around the world, the Associated Press reported back in 2010. They are largely people who grew up playing with the bricks when they were kids, and nowadays see no reason to stop fiddling with the bricks. And why not? Unlike many toys, a pile of LEGO bricks demands thinking and creativity.
“It’s great to get people to start creating things again,” Becky Paschoal told me. “We’ve really lost that.”
That’s why it’s not surprising that Sawaya isn’t the only artist currently working with LEGO. Sean Kenney is a New York artist with more than two million LEGO pieces in his studio. He constructs sculptures and structures similar to Sawaya, as well as special, highly detailed LEGO portraits. In fact, for as little as $695, Kenney will build a custom 20 by 25-inch portrait of you entirely out of LEGO bricks (a larger, 30 by 40-inch portrait sells for $1,695).
Then there’s the German artist Jan Vormann, who’s somewhat more playful. He goes around the world patching holes in walls, streets and monuments with LEGO blocks. His favorite work, he told Juxtapoz in 2010, is in Berlin, where used LEGO bricks to plug bullet and shrapnel holes left over from World War II.
As for Sawaya, he has a museum exhibit that tours the nation. “He only works with about three dealers nationwide,” Paschoal told me. “We’re the only gallery in the state that sells his works. Our goal is to have a show with him.”
As for the price of his works, no one who’s ever shopped for even a small LEGO set will be surprised to hear that they’re expensive.
“They start at twelve-five,” Becky Paschoal told me, indicating a $12,500 sale price. “LEGO is a petroleum product, so it goes up every year.”
For more information on Nathan Sawaya, check out Brickartist.com
Eclectic Image Gallery
The Shops at Wailea