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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Bold frogs, helpful dogs and teen spies: the best children's books for the summer

From toddlers to discerning teenagers, there’s something out there for everyone.

Like soft fruit, summer books can be rich and juicy – or dull and disappointing. Why pick from the glut of American teen romances, stories about running away to join the circus, or books by the ubiquitous David Walliams when you could enjoy something with more flavour?

For toddlers, Once Upon a Jungle (Words & Pictures, £12.99), with its vivid animals moving through brilliantly coloured flowers, is stunning; its dreamlike shapes for children aged two and above are inspired by Rousseau. Nikki Dyson’s Flip Flap Dogs (Nosy Crow, £8.99) is beautifully original, taking the idea of mix and match to describe crosses in dog breeding and temperament that would appal Crufts. Lively fun for dog lovers of three-plus.

The Giant Jumperee (Ladybird, £12.99) brings together two titans of children’s books, Julia Donaldson and Helen Oxenbury, in a tale of animals being tricked by their own fears – and by a bold little frog. It’s perfect comedy for reading aloud to children of three-plus, and an instant classic. The sublime Emily Gravett is less gentle despite her exquisitely imaginative illustrations, and any child that’s ever had a hint of bullying will appreciate Old Hat (Two Hoots, £11.99). Harbert has a hat that other creatures deride as “old hat”, and his increasingly desperate attempts to fit in go wrong until, in a wonderful twist, he shows his inborn originality. Neon Leon by Jane Clarke and Britta Teckentrup (Nosy Crow, £11.99) concerns a chameleon who just wants to fit in, changing into a variety of colours before meeting his match. It’s joyously written and illustrated, for readers aged four and older.

Those too young for Pirates of the Caribbean will still enjoy Sunk! (HarperCollins, £12.99) by Rob Biddulph. With rhyming couplets and a rollicking story, its graphic elegance will inspire the over-fives. The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer (Words & Pictures, £14.99) takes readers on a journey to the centre of the earth, layer by layer; it’s imaginatively conceived for budding geologists aged six and up. In the same age group, the late Michael Bond’s hero returns (before the second film) in Paddington’s Finest Hour (HarperCollins, £12.99). Our most endearing fictional immigrant resists a stage hypnotist, redesigns a neighbour’s chairs, and has a run-in with the police.

In Meg Rosoff’s Good Dog McTavish (Barrington Stoke, £6.99), a rescue dog saves the chaotic Peachey family from late dinners, grime and lost keys. Common sense has rarely been so charmingly conveyed to readers of seven up. An enchanting debut is Lorraine Gregory’s Mold and the Poison Plot (OUP, £6.99). Dumped in a dustbin as a baby, big-nosed, big-hearted Mold must save his adoptive mother from execution when she’s accused of poisoning the king. To succeed he’ll need the help of an unlikely friend and a working knowledge of the palace drains. I love this book, as will any sharp-witted reader aged eight or up – it reeks with talent, great jokes and characters.

Tanya Landman’s protagonist Cassia in Beyond the Wall (Walker, £7.99) is a British slave girl raised for her master’s lusts; when she maims him instead, she goes on the run with a bounty on her head and a slick Roman spy by her side. Interweaving elements of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, the Carnegie-winning Landman has created her best heroine yet in a historical thriller that never releases its ferocious grip. Elizabeth Wein’s heroine also travels to Scotland, for a last summer in her family’s ancestral home. A prequel to the award-winning Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief (Bloomsbury, £7.99), set in the 1930s, is a vivid mystery from page one, when posh, fearless Julie is encouraged by her grandfather to shoot a poacher.

Reluctant teen spy Alex Rider makes a welcome return in Never Say Die (Walker, £12.99). In mourning for his housekeeper and mother-substitute Jack, Alex gets a hint she might have survived Scorpia’s vengeance. A heart-in-mouth pursuit of the rich and nasty begins. Anthony Horowitz is overdue for a gong as a writer who, like J K Rowling, has kept the nine-plus crowd reading long after lights out.

Acclaimed for her witty, topical teenage tales, Sophia Bennett has gone back to Victorian times in Following Ophelia (Stripes, £7.99). By day a scullery maid, Mary becomes after hours Persephone, the stunning red-headed muse of a handsome Pre-Raphaelite painter who takes London by storm. How long can she maintain this double life? Virtue battles vice, and sense succumbs to sensibility in a luscious story that readers aged 12 and over will devour. Keren David’s hero River is another deceiver, and The Liar’s Handbook (Barrington Stoke, £6.99) is both funny and suspenseful for 11-plus. His inventive excuses for flunking school are rooted in unhappiness about his absent father – but the truth, based on a true story, is stranger than you might guess.

My favourite young-adult novel for those aged 12-plus is by Sebastien de Castell (author of the superb Greatcoats fantasies). In Spellslinger (Hot Key, £12.99), Kellen’s dilemma is that he seems to have no magic in a world where teenage mages are required to duel. Brave, funny and vulnerable, he discovers that his true problems lie closer to home. With a talking squirrel and a fabulously hard-bitten trickster on his side, his steps into both magic and manhood are told with the conviction of Ursula Le Guin and the dash of Alexandre Dumas. It’s a peach of a summer read.

Amanda Craig’s new novel “The Lie of the Land” is published by Little, Brown

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder