For most of us, LEGO sets are little more than a child’s toy. But for Nathan Sawaya, they’re an interlocking plastic canvas, an artistic medium of immeasurable potential and capable of transforming into any shape imaginable. Art of the Brick: A Life in LEGO showcases some of Sawaya’s most ambitious projects — this mammoth T-Rex skeleton, for example — and the inspirations behind them. The following is an excerpt from the book.
There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies. — Robert Frost
I had my first solo show in April 2007. It was at the Lancaster Museum of Art, in the rural and Amish town in central Pennsylvania.
At the time the museum contacted me, I thought, “Wow, what an honour,” with the simultaneous thought that it would likely also be my last solo show. It was early in my career, and I hadn’t yet built up confidence in what I was doing.
I didn’t know what to expect, and I was a nervous wreck. We had this whole sequence planned where my family was going to fly in and see the show first at 5 pm before it opened to the public at 6 pm. Since I never expected to do another solo show, I called all my friends and invited them. So they were all there, but I never thought anyone else would come.
At about noon that day, the director of the museum called and said, “You’re not going to be happy, but I’ve started letting people in. It’s freezing outside, and they’re queued up around the corner.”
I was stunned. Usually the gallery saw 35,000 visitors in a year, but my show had 25,000 in six weeks. The Amish came, with their buggies and beards.
What blew me away most of all was that these nine-year-olds came walking through. The show drew in many families and people who’d never come to an art museum before. Kids were asking me for autographs in Lancaster cafés… it was bizarre. I was so overwhelmed by the reaction to the show that I wanted to give something back to the kids. So, in May of that year, I started building Dinosaur.
I began creating a skeleton, something like you might find in a natural-history museum. I was lucky in that I had some serious experience in the subject. I had a middle school science teacher named Al James — Mr. James, at the time — who was an amazing teacher and would always go the extra mile.
He would take us on field trips — not to the zoo or the other typical sites, but all the way to a cave in the mountains, for days. He’d mention offhand, “Oh, and by the way there are bats, so you’ve got to bring a tarp with you so you don’t get bat guano all over you while you’re sleeping.”
That’s stuff that changes your life as an eighth grader.
One of Mr. James’s more grotesque assignments prepared me for Dinosaur. He asked all of his students to find a dead animal, then strip its flesh and reconstruct its skeleton. I’d found a dead beaver by the side of the road, so that became my project. Do you know how to strip the skin and flesh off a beaver? You’ve got to boil it on your mother’s stove top. So I did that.
Luckily, I had very supportive parents.
I went along with Mr James, in 1988, to the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology on a summer course. Most of my job was reconstructing a skeleton from a dead California sea lion for a museum. The Institute had a walk-in freezer, like a butcher’s freezer, and inside there was a whale carcass, a great white shark and a few sea lions. Now, sea lions are pretty big, and they’re covered in blubber, which you’ve got to cut off with a chainsaw. (You could euphemistically call this step a dirty job.) Then you’ve got to boil the body in giant cauldrons so all the flesh falls off, and finally you’ve got to piece all the bones together again to make the skeleton.
That summer, I completed the reconstruction of the sea lion’s skeleton, and I also did a brown pelican. I hope they’re still in natural-history museums somewhere. So when it came to Dinosaur, I knew what it took to create a skeleton. It took me about three months to do Dinosaur — about the same time it took me to do the sea lion!