Nathan Sawaya didn’t find much satisfaction working as a corporate attorney in New York.
“I would come home at the end of the day, and I needed a creative outlet — to draw or paint or sculpt,” said Sawaya, a New York-based artist whose current touring exhibit opens Saturday at Park City’s Kimball Art Center.
Sawaya first created sculpture with traditional media — but then started working with the Lego building bricks he played with as a child.
“I dug out my bricks, sat in my closet and did some large-scale pieces, and friends and family encouraged me to keep going,” Sawaya said in a phone interview this week.
He launched a website — BrickArtist.com — featuring his works, and then started getting requests for commissions. “The day my website crashed from too many hits, I realized there was something to this,” Sawaya said. “So I made the decision to leave the law firm behind and play with bricks full-time.”
Since his first solo show in 2007, Sawaya, 39, has displayed his Lego-built artwork in museums and art galleries around the world. One of his “The Art of the Brick” touring shows returns to Kimball this month, with several new pieces that Park City art lovers didn’t see when the show exhibited there in 2009.
Sawaya has fond memories of his previous Park City visit. “It was great — I talked about moving there at the time, we had such a great time there,” he said.
According to Robin Marrouche, the Kimball’s executive director, Sawaya’s 2009 show was one of the center’s most popular exhibits — with adults and children.
“I had a 10-year-old recently ask me when we were going to bring back Nathan Sawaya,” Marrouche said. “He didn’t say ‘The Lego Guy.’ He said ‘Nathan Sawaya.’ That’s how crazy kids went for the show.”
Sawaya said his Lego art “has connected with people in this whole new level. I get email all the time from folks who have never been to an art gallery before, but they were drawn because of my Lego art and their familiarity with the medium. They experience this whole new art world. It’s a great way to get kids and families into art museums who have never been there before.”
Sawaya’s sculptures often depict life-size human figures, crafted from Lego bricks. The figures often stretch the boundaries of human form, such as his signature work “Yellow,” in which the figure seems to open his chest and allow hundreds of yellow bricks to spill out.
The artist can spend weeks on a sculpture, adding Lego bricks and gluing them together. “It’s very therapeutic to just sit and work hours at a time,” he said. “I just put on music, and to me, it’s part of the process. I go into it knowing that it’s going to take time.”
What’s the appeal of Lego bricks as an artistic medium? “I love the rectangles, the straight lines, the sharp corners,” Sawaya said. “When you go up real close to [my sculptures] and see that it’s all these little squares and rectangles, and then you back away and you see the sculpture in this different perspective. Suddenly, all those sharp corners blend into curves.”
When Sawaya started sculpting with Lego, he bought bricks at the store or garage sales. The Lego Group, the Danish company that produces the famous bricks, was “a little wary” of his art at first. “I was taking their toy in a very different place, and that was into the contemporary art setting,” Sawaya said, adding that “we quickly established communication and developed a great relationship.”
Now, “if I need to order 500,000 red pieces, I do like having that access to the company and I can shoot them an email,” he said.
Sawaya has been commissioned for some unusual projects, including a child’s bedroom with furniture for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and a life-size sculpture of pseudo-pundit Stephen Colbert for “The Colbert Report.” One of his most challenging works is a 20-foot Tyrannosaurus rex for an art/science museum in Singapore — a work that dismantles into 14 pieces for shipping. “I had to get it out the door of my studio,” he said.
For much of Sawaya’s work, Lego bricks aren’t just the medium, but a symbol.
Take, for example, his work “Gray” — one of the sculptures to be displayed at Kimball Art Center — which shows a figure breaking out of a giant gray box.
The sculpture, Sawaya said, “has a lot to do with the dark places I was in, the depression I was in. But you could also point to the fact of the transitions I’ve made in my life, from a very corporate world to what was a very risky, bohemian lifestyle at the time. I was going from a very secure place to a very exciting but insecure place.”
Through his art, brick by brick, Sawaya tells museumgoers about “making those changes in your life — following your dreams, following your passions — and what it takes to make that happen. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. You just have to put your mind to it.”
P “The Art of the Brick,” a touring show of sculptures created from Lego by New York-based artist Nathan Sawaya.
Where • Kimball Art Center, 638 Park Ave., Park City.
When • Exhibit opens Saturday, Feb. 9, and runs through Sunday, April 21.
Hours • Mondays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fridays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturdays, noon-7 p.m.; Sundays, noon-5 p.m.
Admission • Free.
Event • Sawaya will sign copies of his book, The Art of Nathan Sawaya, Saturday, Feb. 9, at noon, at Kimball Art Center.