Nathan Sawaya was five years old when he got his first set of Legos. It was Christmas morning and his grandparents, unknowingly, had gifted him the medium that would become the building block for his career. Fast forward 20 years to 1998, and Sawaya is working in New York City as a corporate lawyer for Winston & Strawn. Searching for creative relief, he would come home from the office to experiment with different art forms — namely his colorful, childhood construction toys.
“It was something about Lego that really resonated with me,” Sawaya says. “I found that my love for a brick as a toy translated quickly to my love for it as an art form.”
Sawaya put a website together and started getting commission work, working nine to five in the office and then for four to six hours on his art once he got home. By 2004, Sawaya’s work started to receive more attention and, after his website crashed from an abundance of hits, he decided to quit his job and make art full-time. Today, Sawaya’s work has been featured in a touring exhibition—“The Art of the Brick”—on the Oscars’ red carpet, in a Lady Gaga music video, and now off of Denver’s very own 16th Street Mall.
Starting this Wednesday, Denverites can embrace their inner child and share a bench with one of the six monochromatic human sculptures from Sawaya’s interactive art installation, Park People, at Republic Plaza off the 16th Street Mall. Unlike many art exhibits that liberally post “do not touch” alongside artwork, Sawaya intentionally created the figures so people felt comfortable to feel, talk to, and experience the work. Arts Brookfield, a sect of real estate company Brookfield Properties, is the organization responsible for bringing the works to the Plaza.
“The art brings in everyone,” says Carol Watson, arts and events manager for Brookfield Properties. “With the Legos, I think it takes us back to our childhood.”
For this installation, Sawaya’s Lego structures are built on wooden park benches that the artist makes himself. The red, yellow, orange, green, and blue forms are made from 20,000 to 25,000 bricks and take about two weeks each to finish. Sawaya plans all the sculptures in advance then glues the pieces together, forcing him to hammer and chisel the work apart if a mistake is made, often providing a frustrating challenge.
“When I am using these Lego bricks for these sculptures, it’s all sharp corners and right angles. Then, you take a step back and you get a different perspective—and that’s life,” he says.
Seated among young professionals and tourists, the figures will color the gray-and-white patio space of the Plaza through August. During your next lunch break or stroll on the Mall, meditate cross-legged next to one park person or cuddle into the arm of another—rumor has it they are great at keeping secrets.
If you go: The installation will be on display from July 10 to August 27 at Republic Plaza off 16th Street Mall. Admission is free and guests are allowed to sit on the park benches and take photos; however, you cannot vandalize, climb on, or eat, drink, or smoke next to the sculptures.