When people see the sculptures done by Nathan Sawaya, they marvel at how thousands of rectangular Lego bricks can create an illusion of curves and emotions in his human-form works.
Park City will be able to see a collection of Sawaya's Lego-brick creations at the Kimball Art Center when "Art of Brick" opens to the public on Saturday, Feb. 9.
Sawaya, who has been building these sculptures full-time since 2004, said he loved art when he was a child.
"I drew a lot," Sawaya said during a phone call from his studio in Los Angeles, Calif. "I also had boxes of Lego bricks and put things together, but I grew up and after I graduated college, I didn't have faith in my artistic-ness as a viable career choice."
So, Sawaya got a law degree and began practicing in New York City.
"When I came home, I needed some sort of creative outlet, be it drawing or sculpting, to unwind," he said. "One day, I challenged myself to pick up the Legos, this toy from my childhood, and do a large-scale sculpture."
So, Sawaya dug all his bricks out from his closet and began building things.
"My friends and family were very encouraging and I did it more and more," he said.
Sawaya eventually put together a website, www.brickartist.com , to show his masterpieces.
"That was the real trigger, because I started getting commission requests to build Lego sculptures from people all over the world," he said. "I took on these projects, which meant that I would work a full day at the law firm and then work at least six hours on these Lego commissioned works."
The day the website crashed from too many hits, was the day Sawaya decided it was probably a good time to make a change.
"I left the law office in 2004 to go play with toys all day," he said with a smile in his voice.
Making the switch took a little leap of faith, he said.
"I went from a six-figure salary to this bohemian lifestyle where I was working project-to-project, and didn't know if I could pay rent month to month," he said. "I knew I was getting commissioned work, so I figured there was a market for this type of work, but I never imagined it would go, where it has gone."
Over the next three years, Sawaya built up his studio and opened his first solo showing.
"Eventually, I began the touring exhibition called 'The Art of the Brick,' which is excitingly coming to Park City," he said. "And that's where a lot of energy is going these days."
Throughout his career as a "brick player," Sawaya has developed a strong business relationship with Lego.
"First off, I do buy all my bricks, like everyone else, but the relationship provides me access to materials," he said. "That means I no longer have to go to a toy store to buy boxes and boxes of the bricks. I can just email them and say, 'I need 500,000 red pieces,' and they'll ship them over."
Sawaya uses a pencil and paper to start a project.
"There is a lot of sketching involved, because that's the key component of what I do," he said. "I draw things out on what is called brick paper. That's kind of like graph paper in math class, but it has rectangles, which are the shapes of Legos, instead of squares."
Once he gets a form on paper, he begins snapping the pieces together and sealing them with glue.
"The glue became necessary because museums don't like opening a crate that is supposed to hold a human bust to find it filled with loose Lego pieces," Sawaya said. "However, gluing the pieces together also means that if I make a mistake and the glue has set, I have to chisel apart hours of work."
Still, that's part of the process.
"You have to have patience to do this job," he said. "I go into the projects knowing that it will take weeks to finish these life-size items, and for me, it's also therapeutic and go into a trance when I'm working."
Creating the human form with hard plastic pieces has it's own challenges.
"Some of the problems I face have to do with simple physics, and I have to fight gravity at times," he said. "Also, I have to capture so many curves and I'm using these little rectangular bricks."
But that's where the magic is, he said.
"Because when you look closely at these works, they are made of these little pieces that have right angles and sharp corners," Sawaya said. "When you back away, you start to see the corners blend into the curves of the human form, and that's what draws me to the brick on a certain level. So, to me, it's also about perspective."
Sawaya will display about 30 works in the KAC exhibit.
"There will be a wide variety and an eclectic group of my body of work over the years," he said. "Some will have a lot of emotion and depth, and others are more light and whimsical. I tried to put together something for everyone, so the exhibit is a good fit for the family."
Sawaya said one of the benefits of using Legos to create art is how it connects with children.
"When kids go to an art museum and see a marble sculpture, it will inspire them, but it is doubtful that they have a piece of marble at home that they can use to make a sculpture," he said. "But kids have Lego bricks, and I get emails from parents all the time that say, 'We saw your exhibition and our kids got their bricks out from under the bed and we haven't heard from them for three days.'
"I get so excited when these kids email me pictures of their own sculptures," he said. "It means I've done my job."
The Kimball Art Center will show Nathan Sawaya's "The Art of Brick" exhibit in the Main Gallery from Saturday, Feb. 9, through Sunday, April 21. Admission is free. The exhibit will open with a member's only dinner at K&J Grill on Friday, Feb. 8. Reservations are required and can be made by calling (435) 940-5770. For more information, visit www.kimballartcenter.org.