With ‘Art of the Brick,’ Lego Sculptor Challenges Ideas of What Counts as Art

It is said that Michelangelo was once questioned about the challenges he faced in fashioning David, his High Renaissance sculptural masterpiece. “It’s simple,” the artist quipped. “You just chip away at the stone that does not look like David.”

“I did the exact opposite,” Nathan Sawaya says with a smirk when asked if he is familiar with the apocryphal quotation.

Sawaya, who quit his job as a corporate New York lawyer in the early 2000s to pursue art full time, created his own interpretation of Michelangelo’s David—only instead of chipping away at a block of marble, he built the biblical hero from the ground up, using thousands of white Lego bricks.

A young visitor examines one of Nathan Sawaya’s lego scultpures at the exhibition The Art of the Brick on Dec 8, 2021| Elliott Alexander

Last weekend Sawaya took over the former Museum of Ice Cream building at 1 Grant Ave. to showcase his works in a new touring exhibit, “The Art of the Brick.” There, visitors will find recreations of some of the most iconic pieces of art in the Western canon, including Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss—all constructed from the brightly colored building blocks.

Visitors examine their phone pictures they just took of Nathan Sawaya’s lego sculptures at the exhibition The Art of the Brick on Dec 8, 2021| Elliott Alexander

“The Art of the Brick” features several million Lego bricks and has been shown in 100 cities across 21 countries—touching down in every continent save for Antarctica. 

“I got my first set of Legos when I was five years old and never stopped,” Sawaya says. “I love creating things out of Legos because it’s a toy that everyone is familiar with.”

These days, Sawaya still occasionally picks up a box of Legos from the hobby store and follows the instructions, but his true passion—which earned him the title of “Master Model Builder” from officials at Legoland in Carlsbad, Calif.—lies in designing his own plastic sculptures.

A corner of The Art of The Brick show on December 8, 2021. | Elliott Alexander

“It starts with the vision and then I sketch it out on paper,” Sawaya says, explaining his process. “After I get a sense of what the finished product looks like, I start building.”

Though his lifelong relationship with Legos goes a long way in explaining why Sawaya chooses to work with the snap-together building blocks, he says that he is also interested in challenging conventional and academic ideas of what counts as a legitimate artistic medium. “Art is not optional and can be absorbed in many different ways,” he says. “We need more art in the world, it’s critical.”

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You won’t find miniature recreations of the Jolly Roger or the Death Star at Sawaya’s studio, where he estimates he has somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million Lego bricks. He prefers using angular blocks to create more organic shapes. “I’ve spent years trying to hone in on the skill of creating the human form out of Legos—getting it just right, so that it looks like a curve instead of a rectangle,” Sawaya said.

Nathan Sawaya in conversation with reporters at The Art of The Brick on December 8, 2021 | Elliott Alexander

One of his favorite sculptures is called Yellow. It depicts a man ripping his chest open, with thousands of tiny bricks spilling from the hollow. “I love this piece because it sparks conversation with people who interpret it in many different ways,” he said. “For me, it means opening one’s self up to the world.”

‘Decisions’ at The Art of The Brick on December 8, 2021. | Elliott Alexander

Another piece Sawaya says gets many vocal reactions is the 20-foot-long T-Rex skeleton made of 80,000 bricks, which took him three months to assemble. The largest part of the exhibit, called “Decisions,” features over 110,000 pieces and displays various multicolored figures extended over a red pool.

“For me, this piece is about hope,” Sawaya says. “But I also try not to give too much interpretation, because I want the viewer to have a role in that.”

Meaghan Mitchell can be reached at meaghan@sfstandard.com.

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