Photos By: Kathryn Stellato
At the age of five Nathan Sawaya received his first Lego set.
Now 42-years-old he has turned his childhood hobby into a fulltime career.
Tired of working as New York corporate lawyer, Sawaya said he would come home at night and play with Legos, creating unique pieces of art using the small colored bricks. Eventually he decided to take a chance on the children’s toy and quit his job in the corporate world to become an artist. His work ended up being a hit.
His creations have since travelled around the world from Texas to Singapore to Alaska and Israel. They have now landed here in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute. Communications manager of the museum, Jessica Lopez, said it broke attendance records as one of the most-viewed exhibits attracting over 300,000 guests between February and August, leading to a decision to keep the exhibit open an extra month to Oct. 4.
The Art of the Brick exhibit has drawn in visitors of all ages. It attracted both older guests, who wandered through the rooms leisurely, along with young children who raced about with looks of amazement. The kids would pause only to ask their parents questions about how the sculptures were made and make guesses about what they symbolized.
Visitors said they were stunned by Sawaya’s ability to capsulate such strong emotions within his Lego sculptures. Many had favorites from his “Through the Darkness” collection; a grouping of grey scale sculptures with bright red accents each representing an emotional obstacle.
One piece that struck a chord with visitors Doris Chechotka-McQuade and her husband John was of a man pulling himself over a wall. From the front of the piece only his head and outstretched arms were visible, however, from behind it showed that he was standing on a ladder peaking over the wall.
“You have to find your own way out,” Chechotka-McQuade said. “I could sense that kind of emotion.”
Grant Naugle’s, 13, favorite was also from that collection; a life-size sculpture composed of over 17,000 Lego pieces called “Grasp.” It depicted a red man attempting to walk forward as gray arms reached out and grabbed him. Naugle said it caught his attention because of the powerful emotions it projected.
Many said Sawaya’s work felt relatable. Chechotka-McQuade said she saw how his work was reflective of the challenges he faced during his own journey as a lawyer to an artist.
“I think he combined his aphorisms and life lessons with the art,” commented Phil Nachman, a visitor from Boston.
Chechotka-McQuade said she also enjoyed Sawaya’s take on famous statues and artwork such as the Bayeux Tapestry, Rose Window and roman statues after having seen many of the original creations abroad.
“Seeing the real thing then, seeing what he created, it’s incredible,” Chechotka-McQuade said.
She was originally drawn to the museum after reading about a Lego recreation of the Vatican done by Bob Simon, a Pennsylvania priest. The model, which sits in the museum lobby, took over 10 months and half a million Legos to create. It features Pope Francis waving and a crowd of nuns taking selfies. It was created to celebrate the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families.
Other Lego artists have popped up across the world putting their own twist on this unique medium. Sean Kenney, a Lego professional based in New York, creates and sells everyday objects made out the toy blocks. On his website shoppers can find Lego lamps for $795 or get Lego portraits done for around $900. Nicolas Foo, an artist based in Singapore, creates Lego mementos for those looking for original gift ideas.
Although The Art of the Brick exhibit is leaving the Franklin, Sawaya’s journey is far from over. His ever-expanding collection is headed next for Ohio. The future for the over 80-year-old toy seems bright as creative minds keep finding novel ways to repurpose these colorful little blocks.