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LEGO artist building bigger career

  • Story Highlights
  • Nathan Sawaya makes his living as a LEGO artist
  • Sawaya has two exhibitions of his sculptures, did piece for Donald Trump
  • "I have more ideas than I have time," the artist says
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By Shanon Cook
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Who said LEGO is just child's play?

The New Orleans Public Library asked Nathan Sawaya to build this sculpture to celebrate the city's rebirth.

The New Orleans Public Library asked Nathan Sawaya to build this sculpture to celebrate the city's rebirth.

Since CNN spoke with LEGO artist Nathan Sawaya a year ago, his popularity has skyrocketed. Just check out his clientele.

Donald Trump recently asked Sawaya to create a replica of the new hotel he's building in Dubai. With 10 days to complete it, and only architectural renderings to work from, Sawaya toiled away in his Manhattan studio snapping tiny bricks together, barely sleeping, to finish the curvy 10-foot statue in time for its unveiling.

His work has also created a, well ... buzz with entertainers.

Sawaya built a 4-foot bumblebee for Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz to offer his new bride, Ashlee Simpson, as a wedding gift. Stephen Colbert wanted a piece of the action too. The comedian invited Sawaya on his show last August to present a life-size LEGO Colbert replica.

"He loved it," says Sawaya. "He called it actual art!"

While being recognized as an artist -- rather than a hobbyist -- hasn't been easy for Sawaya, some of his more evocative pieces appear to be breaking down barriers. Photo See photos of Sawaya's work »

"I think we've been able to introduce the concept that [Sawaya's sculptures] are not just toys," said Rosa Portell, curator at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center in Connecticut, where Sawaya's exhibition "The Art of The Brick" is on display through the summer. "These are actually artworks done by an artist who just happens to work in a medium with which [people] are familiar."

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"The Art of The Brick," one of two of Sawaya's collections touring North America, features "Red," "Blue" and "Yellow," three life-size pieces depicting human forms in startling poses that have brought Sawaya much attention and praise. Video Watch the LEGO artist at work »

The other exhibit on display -- at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, Florida -- shows 20 pieces he built over the past year. Sawaya says one of those pieces, "Grasp," was inspired by his frustration with people who have doubted his ability to make a full-time career out of LEGO sculpting.

It seems the joke's on them. Sawaya, a former attorney who said, "The worst day in the art studio is still better than the best day in the law firm," couldn't be busier, with commissions pouring in from all around the world. CNN's Shanon Cook caught up with him to see how things were going.

CNN: How does being a LEGO artist pay now?

Sawaya: Fortunately, being an artist doesn't mean starving ... as some might think. Luckily, my work is in high demand, and the sculptures are selling for tens of thousands of dollars.

CNN: Do you hope that LEGO becomes "art," treasured for centuries?

Sawaya: One would have to be awfully arrogant to assume their work would be treasured for ages. Right now, I hope my work captivates people for as long as I can keep their attention.

CNN: Was it at all intimidating being asked by Donald Trump -- a builder himself -- to whip up a replica of his Dubai project?

Sawaya: I have yet to be intimidated by a project. I believe I can create anything! I'm always excited when celebrities request commissions. It reminds me that everyone has played with LEGO at some time in their lives. Being commissioned by Mr. Trump was another fantastic opportunity to grab people's attention.

CNN: What's the most unusual request you've received?

Sawaya: I get hundreds of commission inquiries every month. Some wacky, some fun. The most unusual might be when I was asked to build the large bumblebee as a wedding gift from a rocker boy to his pop princess bride.

CNN: That doesn't sound particularly romantic ...

Sawaya: What's more romantic than a giant bumblebee?! (laughs) I think they have a little history there about bumblebees, so I was happy to make it happen for them.

CNN: Why do you think people ask you to build such wacky things out of LEGO?

Sawaya: I think people have passion for different things in their lives and they want to display that passion in a unique way. There are very few people in the world who can say they own a larger-than-life piece of art made out of a toy!

CNN: What's the most frustrating aspect of your work?

Sawaya: Not having enough time to create everything I want to. Right now, I have more ideas than I have time.

CNN: Yes, your work seems to require you to do a lot of traveling. How do you find time to work on these pieces, or work on the next exhibition?

Sawaya: It's been really tough. As I'm becoming more and more in demand, it's hard to find time to actually just stay in the studio, and that's why it's so important to me that when I am in the studio, I'm just working at all hours.

CNN: Last time we spoke, you said your fingers get very sore from snapping LEGO Bricks together. How are your hands doing?

Sawaya: My hands are doing just fine, thanks. They're a little rough around the edges, but that's part of the job.


CNN: Do you think they're going to fall off at some point?

Sawaya: Hands are very important to me in everything I do. I'm a creator with my hands more than anything, and so I actually did a sculpture called "Hands," which is a large gray figure who's lost his hands. They're just piles of LEGO Brick. It's Nathan Sawaya's nightmare!

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