Nathan Sawaya left the world of corporate law at 31 to become a Lego artist.
That's right. Legos. Those little colorful bricks that parents the world over have stepped on. It was a move so wild, it once prompted comedian Stephen Colbert to ask, was this the best way he could tell his parents to go to hell?
"I look at it this way," he said, calling from his Los Angeles studio. "My worst day as an artist is still better than my best day as a lawyer."
With admirers ranging from former President Bill Clinton to Lady Gaga, Sawaya is instead a testament to following your dreams. His blockbuster tour of Lego sculptures arrives in Tampa for a free summer exhibition starting next week. And his parents, by the way, have always been supportive.
The largely self-taught sculptor, 43, marries pop art and surrealism. He can snap a pile of Legos into a curvy shape of a woman swimming in a sea of blue bricks or into his mind-blowing Yellow sculpture of a man ripping his chest open with a tumble of yellow Lego bricks cascading from the cavity.
He has multiple touring shows around the globe. "The Art of the Brick," coming to what was formerly the District 3 event space in Tampa on Friday and running through Sept. 4, will have more than 100 Lego creations set in an interlocking block of galleries. The Vinik Family Foundation is sponsoring the free show in Tampa's Channelside area. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, have committed to bringing public art to the city. Last year, they kicked off the effort with the Beach Tampa, a giant pit of white balls that filled Amalie Arena.
"The Art of the Brick" features brick replicas of classic artworks like Girl With the Pearl Earring, the Mona Lisa and The Scream. There is also a life-sized T-Rex skeleton and Sawaya's own surreal works missing hands, or with heads turned into triangles. The artist himself will attend the opening in Tampa.
The square root of all this: "I see the world in rectangles."
He always loved Legos as a kid. After a hard day in a New York City law firm, he would make intricate Lego sculptures to relax. Friends and family snapped them up, so he set up a website.
He had a six-figure job in corporate law by day, and a growing Web trade by night, with commissions from around the world. But he was no overnight success, he cautions. It took years to make it click into place. And when he did, "many people around me would be surprisingly negative about it."
There's a piece in the show called Grasp, inspired by this transition. A male figure made of red bricks is stepping away from a gray doorway as a half-dozen gray hands try to pull the figure back.
"I had a lot of people telling me I was making a mistake, that I was crazy, telling me no, and I was trying to pull away from it," he said. "When you are leaving something like a law firm, you have colleagues that are almost jealous that you are escaping."
Now, he confirmed, he makes more money than he did working in law.
He worked for the Lego company for a short time, then opened an art studio. In 2007, he opened his first solo exhibition. His popularity took off, and he traveled the world with it. CNN named "The Art of the Brick" one of the world's must-see exhibitions. Sawaya now has five different shows touring the globe at any one time, including one based solely on the heroes of DC Comics.
Sawaya's work has been displayed in the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, and Lady Gaga used his art in her G.U.Y. video with her head atop the Yellow spilling-guts torso.
It was Sawaya who made the Lego Oscar statuettes used as props on the 2015 Academy Awards red carpet. And when the Lego Batman movie premiered in February, Sawaya custom-made the jacket that DC Comics president Diane Nelson wore, with images of Batman and the Joker on each side of the blazer.
"That weighed like 20 pounds," Sawaya said, and it took 10,000 bricks to complete.
As a professional artist, Sawaya is not an employee of the toy company, but he is one of its biggest buyers. He keeps 6 million bricks on hand in his studio and spends "at least" $100,000 per year to buy every color the company makes so he always has what he needs when an idea strikes. His feet are calloused from years of stepping on Legos.
He is inspired by artists like Tom Friedman, the acclaimed sculptor who has fashioned a starburst from toothpicks or a self-portrait carved in an aspirin tablet.
"If he can make fantastic sculptures out of sugar cubes or toothpicks, it's not so far fetched to use Lego to make modern art sculpture."
There's lots of glue involved to keep the sculptures intact. But there's a cost to that.
"If there's a mistake, it's hammer and chisel time," he said. "It's a very depressing moment."
The exhibition includes his latest collaboration with Australian photographer Dean West called In Pieces, in which Lego sculptures are embedded into everyday scenes in a hyper-realism imagery project. The Metamorphosis gallery has his many surreal images, such as Hands, a sculpture in which a man's arms end in stumps with no hands, just a pile of Legos on the floor.
"My tools are my hands, and that piece is a nightmare for me."
Yellow, his most famous piece, "is about opening one's self up to the world. It's about giving your all, so much so that your soul is spilling out."
It's the piece that gets the strongest reaction, he said, and he's heard many interpretations.
"I think kids enjoy that one because it's about this guy and his guts are spilling out all over. But those guts are that toy that they have at home that they've played with," he said. "And then that reminds the viewer, 'Oh, these are all made out of a child's toy.' "
The idea to re-create famous works came from teachers who thought it could be a good way to get kids interested in art history, he said, from the Venus de Milo to Mona Lisa. The tricky part, of course, is getting the bricks to match the original brush strokes.
"There's no blending of color in Lego," he said.
The galleries include some of his earliest efforts, such as a collection of apples, because the first test of any Lego master is to make a ball from square-sided bricks.
Speaking of balls, the Tampa Bay Rays invited Sawaya to throw out the first pitch at Wednesday's game. And sure enough, he's bringing his own ball made of Lego bricks with red stitches and all. It will weigh about the same as a real baseball, and he might be making baseball history tossing a circle of bricks across the plate.
While a ball sculpture is an amusing feat, it is the key to what Sawaya is trying to accomplish.
"When you see these sculptures up close, you see those sharp corners and all these right angles," he said. "But then you back away from it and you see it from a different perspective and all those corners blend into curves.
"And that's kind of the magic of it."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.