STORY WRITTEN BY VINCE CAREY
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When packing up for college, many make sure they take the essentials. Into a suitcase goes a toothbrush, towels, clothes. You know, the basics.
When Nathan Sawaya was getting ready to attend New York University, the one essential not to be missed was his Legos.
“I got my first set of Legos when I was about 5,” Sawaya said. “When I got home, I needed that creative outlet. Some people go to the gym at the end of the day. For me, it was creativity.”
While spending time as a corporate lawyer, Sawaya found himself creating more and more works of art using Legos.
“Fortunately, friends and family encouraged me,” said Sawaya. “Eventually, I started getting commissions from people all over the world.”
Sawaya and his Lego art, which has been traveling all over the world for the past seven years, is now on display in the Franklin Institute’s newest exhibition, “The Art of the Brick.”
“We are really excited to share the Art of the Brick in its current form with Philadelphia,” Sawaya said. “It’s grown. It’s changed from where it’s been over the last few years.”
Among the 100 works of art, Sawaya has recreated some of the greatest paintings in history by using Legos. There’s Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” on one side of the room, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is across the way. Michelangelo spent years carving David out of marble. Sawaya used thousand’s of those small plastic bricks to copy it. David stands near the armless Venus De Milo.
Dominating the opening room are life-size recreations of “Whistler’s Mother” and one of the Moai heads from Easter Island. The Moai, made even more famous in the “Night at the Museum” movies, was built using more than 75,000 Lego bricks.
“That one is hollow,” Sawaya said. “It would just be too heavy if it as all bricks.”
For the Franklin Institute, the exhibit is just a continuation of fun.
“This is the largest display of Lego brick art in the world,” said Franklin Institute CEO Larry Dubinski. “The goal of the exhibition is to inspire creativity and ingenuity. Building with Lego bricks is something we all did as children.”
Legos were introduced in the U.S. in 1962. While the toy started as a loose set of bricks, now there are sets on sale with everything from fire stations to “Star Wars.”
Of course, those bricks sometimes have a mind of their own and, well, can cause a bit of pain underfoot.
“I don’t think I even feel it anymore,” Sawaya said. “In fact, when we hire a new assistant, I throw a bunch of bricks on the ground and tell them to walk over them barefoot. It’s like a right of passage.”
Sawaya doesn’t just stick with recreations of old masters. He is, after all, an artist.
“Some of these works of art are very personal to me,” Sawaya said. “They have a lot of emotion to them. The have a lot of my time and soul in them. Some of them are a little bit of fun. There’s a little bit of whimsy. I hope there is something for the whole family.”
While adults might take a trip back in time seeing the Legos, children will be able to marvel at such things as a T-Rex (more than 11,000 bricks) or some puffy clouds.
“I had done an exhibition, it was one of my first exhibitions and it was in an art museum,” Sawaya said. “I was amazed how many young kids who were at this art museum had never been to an art museum before. They were coming because they wanted to see Lego art. So, I thought I have to give back to those kids. I thought what do kids want to see at a museum. I thought, dinosaurs. So, that’s what I did. I spent a summer working on that dinosaur sculpture.”
It also led to the re-creations of some of those old masterpieces.
“Somebody had challenged me, ‘How do you talk to kids about art? Specifically art history,” Sawaya said. “Art and education are both important to me. This was a gateway into talking about art history with younger folks. I selected a wide variety of works from history. I wanted to be really broad and really explore that.”
Sawaya created a special replica of the Liberty Bell, complete with the crack, in Lego for the Franklin Institute’s exhibit.
“It’s quickly become my favorite piece in the exhibit,” said Dubinski.
While Sawaya exclusively uses Lego bricks (not a knockoff in the exhibit), he’s not sponsored or paid by the Lego corporation.
“We have a relationship, but I don’t use their logo or anything,” Sawaya said. “I don’t think they have a customer quite like me.”
In the end, though, Sawaya said all his work is about one thing.
“Art is not optional,” Sawaya said. “Art is very important. It makes people happy. Creating art is what makes me happy. I hope something like the ‘Art of the Brick’ really inspires kids to go home and create. I hope it inspires adults as well.”