Nathan Sawaya’s ‘The Art of the Brick’ interlocks adolescence with high artistry 

Photo of the Art of the Brick exhibit
The Art of the Brick/Courtesy

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Pablo Picasso is attributed with the quote, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Childlike innovation is often subdued as one ages, buried beneath all seen, heard and felt cultural impressions. To tap back into that state of unfettered creativity takes time — and even more is needed to actually do something with it. Nathan Sawaya captures this whimsy in “The Art of the Brick,” stacked with emotion and surreality. 

The globally touring exhibition has now settled in San Francisco, transforming the venue into a winding maze of statues exploring everything from art history, the human condition and skeletal Tyrannosaurus rex replicas. With Legos imparting a bright and cheery nature, the show has something for everyone, infusing depth and fluidity into the medium of a child’s plaything.

Since leaving his job as a corporate lawyer, Sawaya has risen to fame as a “Lego Certified Professional,” crafting complex works of art completely out of Lego bricks. Over the course of a nearly two-decade-long career, his work is cemented in a world of contemporary art, turning one of the world’s most popular toys into masterpieces. The ordinary turned extraordinary.

Visitors are first welcomed by a life-sized human statue sitting comfortably on a park bench, gazing in the direction of an extra seat beside it. The description reads “Tell them about your day, talk about the weather or divulge your innermost secrets.” A warm introduction to the exhibit, the tone of intimacy and personal identity is carried throughout. With simplistic tiles such as “Grasp” and “Trapped,” each piece of work is left to stand on its own, inviting the viewer to attribute their own meaning — just as they would to any Lego brick. 

Moving onward, the exhibition’s second room is dedicated to art history. Inspired by the question “How do you explain art history to a child?,” art world icons including “Mona Lisa” and “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” are meticulously translated into Lego structures. There is a universality to the brick, transcending language, age, dimension. In Sawaya’s recreation of  “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt, the two figures are pulled from their two-dimensional space, allowing visitors to see them embrace from all sides. 

In lieu of acrylic, marble or gauche, the art labels are reserved for brick count, which often dip into the tens of thousands. Sawaya makes no attempt to trick the audience into forgetting exactly what they are looking at. In a blend of layered maturity and youthful wonder, the exhibit is characterized by a distinct nostalgia as childhood relics carry the weight of grown-up emotion. “Yellow,” Sawaya’s self-proclaimed “most popular piece” depicts human figures pulling open their chest as yellow bricks tumble out. Cathartic and desperate yet spectacular and bright, the piece finds its rightful spot in the center of the walk-through — a perfect summary of the collection’s polarity.   

The exhibit culminates in the world debut of the mystifying “Decisions.” The piece depicts the two ends of each choice made — hope and despair. In the gravity-defying display, sky-blue and ivory human figures take flight, arms outstretched as if to soar in any direction they so choose. While some turn up and out, others leave their focus to the red hands reaching up from a pit of Lego bricks. Contrasting the deep red light emitting from below, the piece approaches the angelic, with its light colors and smooth lines. 

Legos are a staple of many people’s childhoods, but most have not seen them as Sawaya has. In heavily intricate displays, he has captured pain and joy, past and present — the once presumed fleeting moment of youth rendered eternal. Each turn through the exhibit is soup for the soul, restoring one’s inner child and the grown-up looking after them. With tickets on sale through the end of January, “The Art of the Brick” lives up to its name, showcasing an instantly relatable and easily accessible material in the light of truly fine art. 

Contact Afton Okwu at [email protected].