Nathan Sawaya – Brick by Brick

Brick by Brick: Nathan Sawaya’s Lego By: Danny Gold

For the past six years Nathan Sawaya has worked as an artist and earned a living creating large, awe-inspiring sculptures out of thousands of pieces of Lego.

His studio currently holds 1.5 million pieces. His Show at Agora Gallery was be the first time a fine art gallery exhibited works where the medium was solely Lego bricks, and it was also his first solo show in New York City, his home for the past 19 years.

What with Christoph Neimann’s lego-focused book, it seems to be a renaissance in Lego love.

Sawaya didn’t follow a traditional rise in the art world. Originally a corporate lawyer, he won a contest hosted by Lego to build massive sculptures and then started receiving commissions. He realized the day after his website crashed from receiving too many hits that he should move into the arts full-time. “When I was practicing law, it was kind of like my therapy,” he said.

How does one’s family and friends react when he tells them he’s leaving the money stacking world of corporate law to stack Legos? “Some of my colleagues were jealous, some of my bosses were confused, but my family’s always been supportive,” he said. “I think they were actually proud of me at that point.”

Interestingly enough, the Legos were not his originally intended material. “Ten years ago, even before the contest, I was sculpting out of more traditional material like clay and wire, and then I moved onto candy and then finally legos,” he said. “I rediscovered the Legos as a medium from my childhood and was like, ‘What could I do with this?”

Sawaya’s new show consists entirely of pieces that showcase the human form. Some of the pieces seem quite dark, with faces that appear to be in agony and bodies in pain. “I wouldn’t call it dark but it is expressive,” said Sawaya. “Legos are thought of as bright and colorful, so lets use it to make skulls,” he said of his inspiration for the show. “Let’s throw in that irony, even though it’s not the right word. I wanted to use it [Legos] in a different direction.”

The pieces can take up to three weeks to build, and—here’s a little trade secret—he uses glue to hold everything together, often times having to chisel it apart if he makes a mistake or misjudges. And, much like ODB, he’s for the kids.

“I probably get emails every day from kids like, how can I get your job, do you need an assistant. It’s great,” he said. “I get emails from families that went and saw the exhibit, then got home and started playing with Legos.”

Sawaya likes that his work is relatable to almost everyone. Who didn’t play with Legos when they were a kid? “A child can go to a museum and see a marble statue, but it’s not like they can get a marble slag that he can start to chisel,” he said. “But he sees my work, and he can be inspired to create on his own.”

What would make a corporate lawyer give up his six-figure salary to make $13 an hour? One word: LEGO. It all started on Christmas 1978 in Colville, Washington, when five-year-old Nathan Sawaya unwrapped his first set of LEGO bricks. As an adult, Nathan’s LEGO interest was merely a hobby until 2004 when he entered a contest, sponsored by the LEGOLAND theme park, in San Diego to find the country’s best adult LEGO builders. After winning the contest he became a LEGO Master Builder assembling elaborate replicas. Making only one-fifth his lawyer’s salary didn’t matter because he was living his dream.

It is estimated that more than 235 Billion Lego parts have been manufactured since the first “automatic binding brick” was molded in 1949. Today, LEGO is more than just simple building blocks. LEGO is toys, theme parks, games, movies, computers and robots; all sold in more than 115 different countries. Now, the fourth largest toy manufacturer in the world, LEGO Group employs more than 5,000 people and produces more than 33,000 bricks every minute totaling 16 billion bricks annually. That translates into annual sales exceeding $1.1 billion. In 2000, Fortune magazine named LEGO the “Toy of the Century.”

The popularity of LEGO bricks results from the endless possibilities of what you can build. Their versatility is magnified when you realize how many ways you can connect them. You can arrange six eight-stud LEGO bricks in an astounding 915,103,765 different ways. If you can dream it, the LEGO Group believes you can build it.

LEGO bricks provide the essence of this leadership lesson: Building Begins With Connecting.

Relationships are the building blocks of any organization. Relationships precede market position, sales goals, research and development or success in the boardroom. Real power relates and takes on the form of influence by connecting. Look at the heart of any successful organization and you will find strong relationships that began because someone cared enough to click. Relationships or connections will exist at every level in varying degrees and in multiple directions.

LEGO bricks teach that each individual is interdependent on the next connection for success. The properly placed LEGO within a structure provides strength and substance. Placing each person so they connect properly results in the healthy utilization of human resources.

LEGO Leaders know the power of connecting and appreciate these three lessons that LEGO bricks teach:

1. LEGO Leaders recognize the value of connecting. Leaders appreciate that good, connecting relationships build a strong foundation, unleash the power of synergy within the team, and fully utilize the strength of unity of mission.

2. LEGO Leaders have the ability to connect. Leaders can unite even the toughest team members. They do so by teaching that, like LEGO bricks, people must be reliable when placed in positions where they are compatible. When this occurs, connection is easy.

3. LEGO Leaders avoid the failures in connection. Every leader has failed to connect at some point. This happens when people are misplaced, forced into the wrong position or generally unorganized.

Leaders often get so caught up in the programs that they forget about the people – the building blocks of any program. While there is tremendous value in plans, the strength of any organization is in its relationships. Remember, building begins with the clicking sound of connections.
One final word about Nathan Sawaya, the lawyer turned professional LEGO artist. Today he is one of the top LEGO sculptors in the world, his art values range from $100 to tens of thousands of dollars. LEGO bricks changed Nathan Sawaya’s life. Believe it or not, the lesson they teach could change yours too.

This material is taken from chapter one of Toy Box Leadership: Leadership Lessons From The Toys You Loved As A Child

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