The Art of the Brick

Art nurtures the brain. Whether made from clay, paint, wood, or a modern-day toy.

-Nathan Sawaya

Last week my wife and I got the chance to check out the incredible work of world-famous LEGO sculpture artist Nathan Sawaya. His popular exhibit, The Art of the Brick, is currently on display at OMSI in Portland. I’ve been following Nathan’s work for a while now, and was not going to miss the opportunity to see it in person!

Needless to say, we were absolutely blown away by the exhibit. It’s one thing to see Nathan’s amazing sculptures and recreations on the internet, but seeing them in person, and getting the chance to lean in closely to examine and appreciate the detail and artistry that goes into each one, was a whole other experience.

nathan sawaya art of the brick

While I am nowhere near as talented as Nathan, I felt a strong kinship with him while strolling his gallery. I saw a lot of myself reflected back at me in his work. For starters, Nathan uses LEGO to recreate famous works of art, from the Mona Lisa to the Statue of David. As I’ve written about before, I too like to use pre-established works as inspiration for my own photography. It was cool to see Nathan do the same!

nathan sawaya art of the brick

He has a fair share of original sculptures (which my wife knew nothing about, so that was a pretty spectacular experience watching her turn a corner and see them for the very first time) as well, from his most famous piece, “Yellow,” to an enormous tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. Every piece more impressive than the last, Nathan’s work is a shining example of the infinite artistic possibilities a subject like LEGO provides.

That brings me to the second connection I felt with Nathan’s work: His reasoning behind it.

“I use LEGO in my art because the toy is accessible. Chances are you probably don’t have a slab of marble or a ceramic kiln at home. But I bet you have some LEGO bricks.”

-Nathan Sawaya

I love and agree with this sentiment. It is, again, something I’ve written about before. The magic of LEGO seems to draw a lot of artists in, and it brought me immense joy to learn that such a pure reason was behind Nathan’s work as well. There were several kids in the exhibit, and it was incredible to see the wonder in their eyes as they stared upon all of the sculptures. At the end of the gallery, there was even a station of LEGO bricks donated by the Portland Bricks and Minifigs store, where children could immediately take the inspiration they’d gained from the gallery before and build something of their own!

As familiar as I was with Nathan’s work before going to the exhibit, there was one particular project I hadn’t heard of before that I think will be especially inspirational for toy photographers: his collaboration with photographer Dean West, titled “In Pieces.” Nathan creates his usual brand of impressive sculptures, and places them in real-world settings that are then photographed by Dean. It’s toy photography on a real-life scale! I had never considered such a medium before, but was blown away by how cool it could be. If you haven’t heard of or seen “In Pieces,” I highly recommend checking it out here.

nathan sawaya art of the brick
This red dress was sculpted by Nathan and worn by a model for the In Pieces project. So cool!

You never know the impact that your work could have, or where it could take you in your own life.

After all, Nathan was a lawyer before becoming a full-time artist!

“When I was a lawyer I quickly came to realize I was more comfortable sitting on the floor creating sculptures than I was sitting in a boardroom negotiating contracts. My own personal conflicts and fears, coupled with a deep desire for overall happiness, paved the way to becoming a full-time working artist.”

-Nathan Sawaya

I chose to write about this experience not only to gush about Nathan’s exhibit (which you should definitely check out if you have the chance, it’s up until May 29th), but to recommend that you seek out art to view in person, whether it be a photo gallery or displays of life-sized LEGO sculptures. I left The Art of the Brick inspired and excited about my own work, and will now consider new ways I can push the envelope and continue Nathan’s quest to bring the art of LEGO to the masses.

Have you ever been to an art exhibit? What kind of inspiration did you take away from the experience? Sound off in the comments below, and remember to join the discussion in our G+ community as well! 



  1. James,

    Sometimes I feel old and jaded. When I saw the exhibit I was enthralled, but underwhelmed. Thank you for showing me this beautiful exhibit through your eyes. It is much needed. Like you I was blown away by the “In Pieces” part of the exhibit. It was by far my favorite part. In fact I went and looked up the work of Dean West. What a fabulous photographer, with and without LEGO! 😀

    Can I tell you how much I love your header image! Just brilliant!

    As for art shows I try to catch whatever The Henry has up. It is our local modern art museum. The last show was by Chuck Close which was amazing. I had the luck to see a show by Kara Walker a couple of years ago I still can’t stop thinking about. Yes, there’s nothing like going to a museum to get energized about art!


    • Thanks, Shelly! I’m bummed to hear that you were underwhelmed by the exhibit. It’s great that you have a modern art exhibit close by that you can get inspired by and excited about though. I’m sure I have some in my area too, I just need to be more intrepid in finding them.

      I’ll now be following Dean West’s work closely, and will have to check out the two artists you mentioned.

  2. I saw this show back in February at OMSI, and I am so glad I did.

    The work here is amazing beyond amazing. So much good stuff, well lit. Some of it, like the beginning set of famous paintings done in brick fashion where meh, but as I went thru the show, I got more and more tingles. The final few images where he made objects out of Lego and put them into real scenes… epic.

    Everyone should go see this. Go now.

    Why are you still here?

    • I’m glad to hear I’m the only one that was a bit meh on the beginning of the gallery. All of it was cool, but stuff I’d seen before not only by Nathan, but other artists. His larger sculptures were truly impressive though, and I liked that even when he recreated a painting, he found a way to reimagine it in a fun way, like with some elements popping out in 3 dimensions (The Scream comes to mind).

      The large T-rex skeleton was my favorite of his more traditional sculptures, while I found all of his custom work pretty great. And yes, the In Pieces gallery at the end. So, SO cool. I’m glad you got the chance to check it out!

  3. brett_wilson

    Thanks for sharing this James.
    I was introduced to “In Pieces” a few years back, and then introduced my kids to it. Like your story of the kids at the exhibition, both my boys were mesmerized by “In Pieces”. It was like a LEGO “Where’s Wally?” for them, studying the art searching for the LEGO elements.
    We’re lucky to have quite a few galleries, big and small, nearby, and we try to get to at least one of them as often as we can. A lot of the smaller ones, we just ‘pop into’ when we’re near, although going into a gallery cold can be ‘hit or miss’! But nevertheless, being around others’ art always inspires.

    • Brett, that’s so cool to hear that your “smalls” were so blown away by the In Pieces work. And that’s awesome that you have galleries nearby to check out! I’ll definitely be seeking them out in my own neighborhood now that I’ve dipped my toe into the pool, as it were.

  4. we saw it twice, first in London and a year after in Barcelona. Loved the works but, above all, the quotes that you mention here, so inspiring and relatables.

    Also, in the last days in Barcelona, Nathan added another piece: the Gaudi salamander of Park Güell, nice wink to our beloved city!

    • Awesome, I’m glad you had the chance to see his work! I’d love to go again if given the chance. I’m hoping his current Art of the Brick DC exhibit in London will someday make its way here to the states. I love DC Comics almost as much as I love LEGO, so I may just have a heart attack in that exhibit.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this. I wish I could see it in person. Gorgeous. And your header image is superb.

    I love art exhibits and at a time went quite often. It’s been awhile, but I think in the next week or so I’ll be re-visiting a local museum. Seeing art pieces up close and in person and just experiencing the way other artists see can be very inspirational.

    • Thanks, Jennifer! I’m sad to say I haven’t been to many art shows or exhibits myself, but will hopefully remedy that now that I’ve been inspired by Nathan’s. I never quite realized how energizing and inspirational it could be.

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