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Former lawyer strives to make art accessible with Lego exhibitions


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A merger of pop art and surrealism has created a stunning entry in the world of contemporary art. And it might bring back some childhood memories.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports, as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Mike Cerre: The real Mona Lisa painting, it is not, nor is this your typical art exhibit and museum patrons. But this LEGO interpretation of the Mona Lisa and other famous art works recreated by Nathan Sawaya, the Leonardo da Vinci of LEGO art, might be as good an introduction to art history as any, especially for the uninitiated.

Nathan Sawaya, LEGO Artist,: How do you talk to a 5-year-old about the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo? Well, maybe if they see them built out of a toy they're familiar with, it at least opens the door.

Now they see it as a work of art, and that's how you start the conversation.

Mike Cerre: Nathan Sawaya's The Art of the Brick traveling exhibits have been generating new conversations about what constitutes art, drawing over 10 million viewers across the country and internationally.

Nathan Sawaya: I had families tell me that they'd never been to an art museum before. And here they were because of this art. As an art medium, it makes the art very accessible, because it's something so many people are familiar with.

Almost everyone has snapped a LEGO brick together, or maybe they have stepped on their kid's LEGO brick, but people know LEGO, and that makes the art very accessible.

Mike Cerre: Hooked on LEGO for entertainment as a child, his passion followed him to college, law school, and as a creative release from his corporate attorney work, until he started showcasing some of his creations online.

Nathan Sawaya: I had no formal art training, other than a few art classes, but I found that I had -- I would come home and need a creative outlet after long days at work, and, sometimes, that was painting, sometimes drawing, and sometimes sculpting.

And I started getting commission requests, these commissions from folks all over the world requesting random things built out of LEGO, and I started taking on these projects. So, I was working full days at the law firm and then six hours at night fulfilling commissions.

Mike Cerre: From life-size Batmobiles, to recreating the Central Perk set for the 25th anniversary of the TV series "Friends." He only accepts commissions he finds artistically challenging, which excludes buildings or anything controversial, like political figures.

Many art critics believe that self-censorship makes his work more design than art, compared to artists like China's Ai Weiwei, who crafted LEGO portraits of famous dissidents.

Have you been accepted by the rest of the art world, or is there still a little bit of, oh, this is a novelty, we don't really consider it real art.

Nathan Sawaya: The art world is the art world, right? It's a very interesting place, and it changes from time to time.

When I started, I think I had a few gallery doors slammed in my face, or at least I was laughed out of the place, because galleries tended to think of, well, LEGO art was associated with what they saw at a toy store. And so it wasn't until I was really able to focus on creating human forms that had this emotion, that had something that was there for people to see and grasp on to and react to that the art world started to pay attention a little.

More people have contacted me about Yellow than any other sculpture I have done. But I don't want to put too much pressure onto people seeing it as I see it. I want them to have their own role in interpreting it. That's why the name is so simple. It's just Yellow.

It's not like Man Opening His Soul or something that would point people in a certain direction.

Mike Cerre: His latest collection is a series of endangered animal sculptures he created and were photographed by Dean West in their natural habitats to draw attention to their plight.

Nathan Sawaya: Our feeling was, if we don't do enough to save the planet, all we're going to be left with are plastic animals.

Mike Cerre: They're saying there's -- 20 billion LEGO bricks are made every year. They're made out of plastic.

Nathan Sawaya: OK.

Mike Cerre: What's the sustainability issue here? I mean, is...

Nathan Sawaya: Well, here's the great thing about LEGO, right, is that this toy -- my parents had this toy, and when they snapped those bricks together with my bricks, that snap together with kids bricks today, they all are still playable, right? They all still snap together.

And so it's not something that's going into landfills. It is continued to be played with.

Mike Cerre: I have two grandsons, and they're playing with LEGOs all the time.

Nathan Sawaya: Right.

Mike Cerre: And I'm stepping on them all the time.


Mike Cerre: And after they have done the initial assembly of the set, then it falls apart.

Nathan Sawaya: Right.

Mike Cerre: They have lost the bags. They don't have the instructions. Is that where the creativity comes in?

Nathan Sawaya: I think there's this opportunity to start building again, and come up with whatever you can out of your imagination. And that starts at a very young age.

I realized that this toy did not have to be just what was on the front of the box. If I wanted to pretend to be a rock star, well, just build a guitar.

One of my mantras is, art is not optional. We have to have more creativity. We have to have more art in this world. And through research, I have realized, kids in school, when they are exposed to art, they get better grades. When kids are creating art, their test scores are higher.

Their graduations are higher when there's art in their curriculum. But it doesn't even have to be LEGO bricks. Just creating art is key, in my mind.

Mike Cerre: The Art of the Brick Exhibit in San Francisco runs through May, while another opens at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry on February 10.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Mike Cerre in San Francisco.

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