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Man builds a living out of LEGO

Story Highlights

• Nathan Sawaya is a LEGO artist
• Exhibit of Sawaya's work at U.S. museums
• Among works: functioning air conditioner
By Shanon Cook
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Nathan Sawaya's workspace is an explosion of color.

Clear plastic crates stuffed with LEGO bricks in every hue are stacked high against the walls. A computer sits on the floor, but it's not functional. The red, yellow and blue replica is made entirely of LEGO.

In fact, everything in the room is made of LEGO; a cash register, a monkey, a bowl of fruit, a vase of flowers.

Here in Sawaya's Manhattan studio, the 33-year-old artist snaps bricks together to create sculptures, big and small. His medium may be a beloved kid's toy, but some of his signature pieces are incredibly grown-up. (Gallery: A sampling of Sawaya's LEGO art)

Now people can get an even closer look. Sawaya's national touring exhibit, "The Art of the Brick," is making the rounds. The collection was viewed by tens of thousands at the Lancaster Museum of Art in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Its next stop is the Discovery Center Museum in Rockford, Illinois, on June 15; it will stay there until September 3. (Watch Sawaya hit the bricks Video)

Sawaya, who abandoned a career as an attorney in 2004 to take on LEGO sculpting fulltime, spoke to CNN about his quirky craft.

CNN: How is a LEGO artist different from a LEGO hobbyist?

SAWAYA: I get paid! In all seriousness, I've tried to take LEGO in a direction it's never been before. I've tried to put it in a museum setting, and I've created very large-scale sculptures that are on tour for the next couple of years. And that's something that I think is a little different from your average hobbyist who's really just building for fun.

CNN: What does LEGO capture that other media do not?

SAWAYA: LEGO is something that almost everyone has played with at some point in their lives. I notice a lot of times when people go to my shows they want to touch the sculptures.

I receive many e-mails from people who have seen my work and are then inspired to get down on the floor with their kids and build. In fact, the museum show also has a building area for kids who are inspired to build their own artwork after seeing my pieces.

CNN: Does LEGO (the company) give you a discount on the bricks?

SAWAYA: They allow me to buy it in bulk, but I have to pay for my LEGO like everybody else.

CNN: How difficult was it to make the decision to switch from full-time attorney to fulltime LEGO artist?

SAWAYA: It wasn't very tough. I worked with great people at the law firm, but my passion was always for my art. As more and more people were commissioning pieces and collecting my artwork, it became clear to me that I should focus on my art full time.

New York corporate attorneys are known for working the long hours. I find myself working long hours now as well, but I'm doing something I love. ... The worst day in the art studio is still better than the best day in the law firm.

CNN: Has it been a challenge to make ends meet?

SAWAYA: I have had some great large-scale commissions that have kept me financially secure for the most part. Currently my pieces are selling for up to tens of thousands of dollars, so the future looks bright.

CNN: Which piece are you most proud of?

SAWAYA: All of my pieces have special meaning to me, but I am particularly happy with a sculpture I did for the New Orleans Public Library. After the Katrina devastation, I was commissioned to build a permanent work of art for the library that would focus on the rebuilding of New Orleans. As part of the project, thousands of drawings by children from across the country were collected in which the children were asked to draw what they thought would be important for the rebuilding of the city. I then interpreted these drawings to create the sculpture.

CNN: What's the weirdest thing you've ever been asked to build?

SAWAYA: I've built monkeys for both the talk show host Craig Ferguson, and the magician David Copperfield. I've also built a functioning industrial air conditioner.

CNN: You mean it actually churned out cold air?

SAWAYA: Well, it produced a slight breeze.


Nathan Sawaya left a career as a lawyer to become a LEGO artist.



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