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BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME

Remember the excitement you felt when you were a kid opening your presents on Christmas morning? Well, would you have ever imagined that opening one of those gifts could change your life and cement your future career path?

It did just that for 34-year-old Nathan Sawaya back in 1978, when his grandparents presented him with his first set of LEGO blocks, or bricks, as they're called in LEGO-speak. Today, bin after bin of colorful LEGOs crams Sawaya's New York studio, where he carefully crafts the tiny cubes into giant organic architectural sculptures - like those in his series of three-dimensional, life-size human forms, which must be seen to be believed. His commissioned pieces sell for as much as $65,000, and a collection of his creations is currently touring museums across the country in the Art of the Brick, the only exhibition to ever focus exclusively on LEGOs as an art medium. We recently talked with Sawaya about his art form and asked how he transforms something so ordinary into something so extraordinary. - Jaye Revell

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How old were you when you got your first set of LEGOs?
I was five. I remember ripping into the package and building a LEGO house right then, oblivious to the rest of Christmas morning.

What was it about them that drew your interest and inspired such creativity?
Playing with LEGOs let my imagination control the playtime. If I wanted to be a rock star that day, I could build myself a guitar. If I wanted to be an astronaut, I could build myself a rocket. Also, with some other toys, if you lost a piece, then the whole toy couldn't be played with. But not so with LEGOs.

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That first LEGO house you built in your parents' living room turned into a LEGO city as you worked on it over the next 12 years. Just how elaborate did it get?

It had the staples of any city, like a fire station, hotel, park, and hospital. It also had some more-unique establishments, like a LEGO lake, a LEGO ski lodge, the Empire LEGO Building, and a LEGO amusement park.

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How did that childhood obsession end up turning into a profession?
I started doing large-scale LEGO sculptures in 2000. After my first few, I posted photos of them on my website, Brickartist.com. Soon, I was getting commissions from all over the world, and I realized I might have a LEGO career in my future.

In 2004, you entered - and won - LEGO's search for the nation's best builder, right?
Yes. The contest involved several rounds of timed building, in which participants were given a certain number of bricks and asked to build a themed piece within a certain amount of time. [When I won], I was offered a position with LEGO as a master builder. After about seven months, I really wanted to be able to pick and choose my projects, so I left and became an independent artist.

Do you work in any other mediums, like painting or sculpture?
I have sculpted out of more traditional media such as clay, wire, and wood, and with some nontraditional media such as bottle caps and even candy. However, building with LEGO bricks is what I'm best known for.

What is the biggest piece you've ever done?
The largest installation I've ever built was a billboard for the film Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. It measured over 53 feet in length and 15 feet high and had well over half a million pieces.

How long does it take to make one of your creations?
It depends on the size and subject matter. One of my life-size human forms generally takes three to four weeks. The skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex I did, which measured more than 19 feet, took an entire summer.

If you make a mistake midway through, do you have to pull off all the blocks and start over?
Usually, I can catch the mistake before it's too damaging and only have to take apart a portion of the sculpture. Sometimes, though, the sculpture will already be glued together, which makes it much more difficult to take apart. Fortunately, I'm good with a chisel.

You glue your LEGOs together?
I have to, to make sure they'll travel well. I would imagine people would be disappointed if they got to the exhibit only to see a pile of bricks.

So, do you map your structures out on paper ahead of time, or do you just throw a bunch of bricks on the floor and start playing?
At this point, I see the world in little rectangles. Sometimes I catch myself staring at a building, or even at a person, and breaking down what it would look like out of LEGOs. As for the process, I just try to envision what the final sculpture will look like prior to putting down the first brick.

How many LEGOs do you own?


I have about 1.5 million LEGO pieces in my inventory at any one time. And one Lincoln Log. I don’t know how that got in there.