Plastic foundations

From issue 9 of Gym Class Magazine

There’s a good chance that you have a childhood memory of clutching a LEGO brick in your hands for the first time, feeling the corners gently spike the flesh of your palm, remembering the sound as it clicked into place to build whatever had gripped your imagination at that moment.

For some people, that fascination never left as they became adults. Growing numbers of sculptors, designers and even scientists are using LEGO to create art, proof-of-concept prototypes and even lab equipment. Gym Class Magazine gets down on the floor to rummage around in the LEGO tub to see what we can find…

That’s what five-year-old Nathan Sawaya did in 1978. Now a New York-based LEGO sculptor, Sawaya, 38, grew up in rural Oregon where his nearest friend was at least a mile away. With a sister three years his junior, he could only play along with Barbie for so long, and so began to construct toys from LEGO. It’s a Sunday morning in New York and Gym Class is speaking to Sawaya after his flight back from an exhibition in South Africa. Despite living out east, his voice has a hint of relaxed north-western drawl – or perhaps it’s the jet lag: “As a child, my parents were quite accommodating and let me have this 3m2 LEGO city in a living room,” he says. “When I was ten years old I wanted to get a dog, and my parents said, ‘you can’t’. So what did I do? I tore down a large section of the city and built myself a lifesize dog. That was one of those first ‘A-ha!’ moments when I realised that this toy could create anything I could imagine.”

That imagination was later tempered by reality. Despite a creative childhood of drawing and writing, when Sawaya left college in 1995 he felt the pressure to conform to societal expectations. “I didn’t really have faith in my art to provide for me. I ended up going to law school and studied to be a corporate attorney.” He worked on multi-million-dollar transactional cases for Winston & Strawn during the day, but in the evening would indulge his passion for art – painting, drawing and writing. Having found some public attention making sculptures from candy, in 2000 he began to work on a larger scale, digging out the old Lego bricks that had built the city of his childhood. “I put a little portfolio together on a website,, and that’s when I started getting commissions from around the world – it really opened my eyes.” When his website crashed in January 2004 from the sheer number of hits received, Sawaya realised that this was something from which he could make a living. It was time to make his move. In April of that year he resigned from the law firm, then entered and won a competition to work at Legoland for a few months as one of their master model builders. Then he took the plunge, buying studio space in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to go freelance as an artist. He’s still there today.

Sawaya’s The Art of the Brick exhibition currently has two tours in the US, and a third in Australia. His artwork is introspective and emotional. Skulls gape at you in bright, primary colours like pop-art Mayan death masks. Life-size, faceless human forms – reminiscent of Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon – disintegrate at the edges, or tear open their chests to spill plastic bricks or reveal a hidden head in the chest cavity. “They’re based on a theme of metamorphosis,” says Sawaya. “All these figures going through changes, breaking themselves apart – that just draws on the journey that I’ve had.”

While the punters are looking at his art, Sawaya is watching them: “I love seeing people’s reactions to it. Kids see that this toy doesn’t just have to be just cars and trucks. It’s opening the art world up to them. I also enjoy it because of how it comes together, these very distinct lines and sharp corners. There’s something very beautiful about that. When you get up close to my sculptures you see it’s all right-angles, sharp corners and rectangles and squares and whatnot, then you back away and all those corners blur into curves and there’s a bit of magic when that happens.”

Sawaya has no fixed approach to building a model, but for the most part ideas will start life on the sketchpad he always carries with him. A first sketch is developed with additional drawings from different angles, all on what he calls “brick paper”, a kind of graph paper printed with rectangles. This forms the blueprint from which he ultimately builds, and perhaps unsurprisingly, glues. “LEGO snaps and holds together just fine in my studio. But to ensure it arrives in one piece as I ship my work around the world, I glue sculptures one brick at a time.” And if he makes a mistake? “Well, I’m very good with a hammer and chisel. On one sculpture of a human hand, a metre-and-a-half high, I noticed the proportions were incorrect. I had to chisel away days of work. That’s very depressing, but it’s part of the creative process.

Sawaya also uses the LEGO Digital Designer software, downloaded from the LEGO website. “The advantage of this is that you can see how it’s going to look virtually without putting the work into it. It’s also very good for children because you’re using virtual bricks, so there’s no limit.”

Working in stretches of 12 hours or more, preferring not to be disturbed, Sawaya tends to disappear into a trance when sculpting. He has an administrative team to help with the logistics of exhibitions, but is the only artist at the studio. He is quick to add that this is not an issue of control, “I really struggle to express how I want a sculpture to look. I haven’t found someone yet who has that same vision – not that I’m looking, before I get a bunch of applications mailed to me. I’m nuts enough as it is!”

In contrast to Sawaya’s brooding subject matter rendered in a naïve colour palette, the Japanese LEGO artist Suchiko Akinaga, 47, produces work evoking childlike playfulness, often featuring cartoon-like animal characters with human qualities.  “I like to embody the world that nobody has seen before,” she says, “the world that I would like to go to or the things that I would like to see.” Lego’s 3D quality appeals to this sensibility. Akinaga has a love of animals or cars in picture pop-up books and LEGO allows for her imaginary world to be made physical. “I prefer to express something by deformation,” she says. “Simplistic, exaggerated, but not realistic.” She talks lovingly of her art as “rough-dotted expression”, a bright, colourful, pixellated view of the world, similar to the style of early computer game graphics. “When you look at a sphere made with bricks, unconsciously, you imagine a smooth edge,” she says. “If a small figure is stood on this sphere, you begin to imagine it is very big. LEGO can realise this part of the imagination. My joy is that people who see my works are surprised and thrilled at them, just as I was when creating them.”

Akinaga freelances as a web designer and LEGO artist, while working a day job as planning director for Japanese toy manufacturer, Takara Tomy A.R.T.S.

Like Sawaya, she began playing with LEGO at the age of five, building her first display pieces in the 80s, but did not go pro until January 2005 when, at 40-years-old, she competed in The 1st Championship for the King of Lego. The competition was divided into four rounds, each requiring one or more figures to be built. For the final, she was required to build a complex model in less than eight days, with construction taking place in front of a studio audience. “I’ve never built something with bricks in front of so many people,” she says. “And I had a lot of pressure to complete it within the time limit, so I was very nervous.” Akinaga won and was crowned champion, complete with a trophy made of yellow LEGO bricks. Her winning model was An Amazing Town Within a Deep Red Car. One-metre-long and styled after a red Volkswagen Beetle, the roof comes away to reveal a lunch tray of food items. That then lifts out to reveal that deeper within is a subway train in the guise of a hamburger, complete with platforms of waiting passengers and – hidden in the car’s hubcap – a ticket office. Akinaga would go on to retain her title in November 2005, and after a break, to reclaim it in November 2011. She mostly conceives and builds models from an image in her mind, but for commissions, she sketches ideas on paper or uses Photoshop to produce a flat “planar illustration”, which she then imagines three-dimensionally, building by eye, adding and taking away bricks as necessary. She considers her greatest model to be Let’s Go to the Earth Park!, created during the second Lego King championship in Denmark, October 2005. Measuring 120cm2 and composed of about 40,000 bricks, a huge LEGO earth of coloured continents is seemingly supported by two escalators taking LEGO figures from parkland up into the interior of the planet. Remove the northern hemisphere and inside is an island of animal models, in and out of which climb LEGO figures as if at a theme park. This piece was to become her international calling card.

George Gene Gustines, managing editor of The New York TimesT magazine, wanted to find a LEGO artist to illustrate the cover of its Winter Travel Issue. He got in touch with LEGO representatives in the US, and the name they gave him was Akinaga’s. “They loved Let’s Go to Earth Park!,” she says, “and asked me to make a T-shaped building in a park or on a beach.” She took Central Park as her inspiration for Block Party, the 2m2 model of the capital T from the Times’ masthead – Old English type set in LEGO bricks. LEGO figures party on the rooftop and in a pool created in the bar of the T, and the building is set in an expanse of green Lego parkland complete with bushy brick-trees.  “I showed [the Times] rough pictures of a T-shaped building in the style of a hotel and a park, and after that I produced it in 11 days of 16-hour shifts,” says Akinaga. So has her life changed dramatically since appearing on the magazine cover? “To my joy, soon after the T magazine was issued, I was interviewed about Block Party by magazines from various countries. And at the beginning of 2012, I received a request from New York to produce a model. Maybe, my life is changing drastically!”

Sawaya and Akinaga are mere Lego bricks in the gargantuan AFOL (adult fans of Lego) world. John Baichtal, co-author of The Cult of LEGO Skypes Gym Class Magazine from his home in Minneapolis, to talk about the durable appeal of Lego’s coloured plastic: “The toy has been around so long it almost transcends generations, where your parents played with LEGO and you did, and your kids do. In a sense it’s a tradition. It’s a very well made toy, and very mature in that all the bugs have been worked out and everything just clicks together perfectly.” Baichtal doesn’t believe that LEGO art has quite gone mainstream yet, but that it’s a matter of time before more artists pick it up, and that it will grow beyond a novelty. “It’s not like starting to paint where the mixture of colours is mysterious. [With LEGO art] you can see the bricks, so in theory you could assemble art in that way. It’s accessible. And it has such a huge diversity of parts and colours, so you can depict something very accurately. If it was just four colours of two-by-four bricks, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”

Lego hobbyists were once limited to sharing their feats of construction with friends or like-minded souls in their immediate neighbourhood. Then the internet arrived.

Message boards, and later, websites allowed a global Lego fanbase to connect with each other, to share ideas and inspire collaboration for bigger, even wilder models, some with movement and sensory capability courtesy of the Lego Mindstorms NXT robotic elements. In the last five years Lego conventions have appeared in cities across the world, most notably in the US, which hosts BrickCon, BrickFair and Brickworld, and in Australia, home of Brickvention. None of these operate with any official accreditation from Lego Group, so what do the company think of all this? Baichtal explains: “They’re definitely very respectful of their fans and listen to them. They have ambassadors who go to all the conventions to get a sense of what the adult fans are looking for. They recognise the adult Lego community is huge and influential, and they’re smart to cater to them.”

Baichtal’s The Cult of Lego is part homage to this community, but the early chapters provide an insight into the origins of the Lego Group.

In 1932, Ole Kirk Christiansen, was a carpenter living in Billund, Denmark. His business of manufacturing homes was suffering in the great depression, so he switched to making domestic items. A wooden pull-along duck was such a success that he committed the company to making only toys and it was renamed “LEGO”, a word derived from the Danish expression leg godt which means “play well”. It wasn’t until 1947 that Christiansen conceived the “automatic binding brick” made from plastic. Rebranded the “LEGO brick” in 1953, it was in 1958 that a patent was filed for a “toy building brick” with improved interlocking capability. The design has not changed since, and bricks from that time are compatible with those manufactured up to this day.

This is the Lego brick that you and countless others hold in your hands today, the one that artists such as Sawaya and Akinaga sculpt with wondrous acclaim. The piece of plastic that through additive imagination makes daydreams manifest in brightly-coloured plastic. If you can imagine it, you can probably build it.