Welcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers. As I mentioned in the last Q&A, I’ve been introduced to several of these interviewees through readers who have written from around the globe. This next interview is one of those examples. Reader Colin saw Nathan Sawaya’s The Art of the Brick exhibit in Singapore, noted that it was from a former lawyer and then emailed me when he got back to his laptop in case I wanted to feature Nathan for this series. Definitely! Nathan is a New York-based artist who creates 3D works and large-scale sculptures using only toy building blocks. LEGO bricks to be exact.
Hope you enjoy!
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Interview with Nathan Sawaya
What made you decide to leave the practice of law? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?
I’m not sure I ever wanted to be a lawyer. When I think back I can’t remember feeling passionate about practicing law. It’s all kinda foggy. But I do have crystal clear memories of wanting to be an artist. Of wanting to create, and to transform nothings into somethings. So at the end of a long day lawyering, I would be craving creativity. Sometimes I would paint, sometime draw and sometimes sculpt. And I sculpted out of various things. One day I challenged myself to sculpt out of a toy from my childhood. I did a large scale piece out of LEGO and my friends and family encouraged me to try a few more. Soon I put a website together to showcase my large sculptures. It was the day that my website crashed from too many hits that I realized it was time to make a change and leave the law to go play with toys.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current job as an artist? Why did you choose LEGO sculptures for your most recent exhibitions?
Well first of all, being an artist is way more fun than being a lawyer. Sorry, but it just is. I wear jeans everyday and have an endless supply of materials in which to play. I am also my own boss. And if I want a day off, or a vacation, my boss always says “Yes.” But the best part is that it is also very rewarding to inspire others. For a lot of my artwork I use LEGO bricks. I love seeing people’s reactions to the work when they see it for the first time. They can connect to the work on a different level because of the familiarity with the toy. And many times, after seeing my exhibitions, folks tell me that they go home and start creating with their own LEGO bricks.
In addition, my touring exhibition, The Art of the Brick, has brought more than a million people into the contemporary art world who might not have otherwise ever stepped foot in an art museum or gallery. There are countless children who have now been exposed to art. Not something that would have happened if I’d stayed a lawyer.
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in branching out from traditional private practice but concerned about what is out there?
Making that transition can be hard. When you’re ready to take that leap, all I can say is that you really find out who your friends are. It’s amazing how people I thought were my friends became so negative about me leaving the law. Of course I was leaving to go play with toys everyday, and while they had every right to think I was crazy, they still could have supported me. My advice to anyone wanting to branch out is to cut the negative people out of your life. Find the people that have your back and believe in you, your talents and your happiness.
Do you still identify as a lawyer or use the skills you developed in your legal training?
My legal training has been an important step in making me who I am today. It has trained me to think critically about situations. I have friends who are artists who say that I do have a bit of an advantage because I can negotiate with clients without having to engage a lawyer to do so.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
They are right.
The worst day as an artist is still better than the best day as a lawyer.
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Nathan Sawaya is a New York-based artist. Sawaya currently has four exhibitions touring North America, Asia and Australia, with each exhibition focusing on LEGO as an art medium. The creations, constructed from nearly one million pieces, were built from standard bricks beginning as early as 2000. In 2011, CNN named The Art of the Brick on of the top 12 must see exhibitions in the world. Born in Colville, Washington and raised in Veneta, Oregon, Sawaya’s childhood dreams were always fun and creative. He drew cartoons, wrote stories, perfected magic tricks and of course also played with LEGO. His days were filled with imagination. When it came time for college, Sawaya moved to New York City and attended NYU. He attended NYU School of Law and became an attorney. But soon he realized he would rather be sitting on the floor expressing himself with LEGO bricks, than sitting in a boardroom negotiating contracts. It was then that Sawaya rediscovered his beloved LEGO bricks and indulged in his inner child to create what many believe is a new art revolution using LEGO as an art medium. For more information about Nathan Sawaya and his artwork, visit his site Brick Artist.