There are only a handful of themes which truly stand the test of time. The kind of things shared between generations; dancing across language barriers; appreciated by any child, anywhere, anytime. Lego is definitely one. DC characters are absolutely there. Art is certainly there.
And then whoa! You have someone like Nathan Sawaya combining all three?!? Welcome to the Art of the Brick: DC Comics. Prepare to be joyfully stunned.
By now, the Art of the Brick has been a pretty big thing. In fact, Yellow Man has become an iconic figure; representing the coming together of Artistic Expression with the ubiquitous joy of Lego. Over the last 10 years, Nathan has shown the world how the humble brick can be a serious art medium. Nathan’s art transports many adults back to their childhood and natural creativity while introducing children to the world of modern art.
The next assignment he wanted to take on was a bit more… geeky. And I like it.
Nathan recently traveled to Sydney, Australia, to open his new exhibition The Art of the Brick: DC Comics. While enjoying the Media Preview (perks of being Evil Genius Mum), I caught up with the man himself.
I’ve included most of the interview to share with you, but there is something special about this exhibition. Each piece has something you can connect with personally. Sometimes it’s the iconography; sometimes it is that little bit extra you know about the artist.
Come for a walk with me around the displays and I’ll share a few of Nathan’s secrets. Let’s dive into his Riddler’s Lair and explore the man behind the brick.
Evil-Genius Mum (EGM): Okay, Nathan. Let’s talk about how this all started. ‘Fess up. How much did you geek out at the idea of working with the DC Team?
Nathan: Yeah, there was a bit of fun with that! I had been wanting to do something on “good vs. evil,” and that can take many different forms. Heroes and Villains made the most sense. You know, I used to love watching Super Friends as a kid. I naturally went for that.
The concept of Art of the Brick: DC Comics had been playing in Nathan’s mind for some time. He just needed the opportunity to bring DC Comics to the party.
Back in 2012, DC Comics commissioned a piece for their “We Can Be Heroes” campaign (benefiting the Horn of Africa). It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. You know you’ve hit the big time when you are up on stage at San Diego Comic-Con talking about working with Jim Lee on the style and design of the Batmobile. Jim Lee knows cars; Nathan knows how to make a rectangular brick look aerodynamic. You need to go and see this.
EGM: Knowing your exhibit is going to attract a lot of kids, how did you balance the dark nature of DC with the child-like nature of Lego?
Nathan: You always have to be aware of the audience. You need to have a little fun but not be afraid to introduce an element of menace. I mean, that’s the nature of these characters.
Nathan: Take the Joker for example. I needed to make him a little scary. That’s what he is about.
Don’t stress, guys. Nathan’s Joker Mask does have an element of menace to him, but it is done with beautiful balance emergent in “Heroes and Villains.” That’s the secret to Nathan’s exhibit: He stays true to the medium (Lego) as well as showing complete respect for the characters. There’s no anarchy here. Just a playful expression of art to make you think about your heroes… and your villains.
EGM: So if you were a villain, what would your evil genius superpower be? What would make you the best villain ever?
Nathan: Well, I always thought there was a little bit of Lex Luthor in me, but I think I am more of the Riddler. A bit of a question at times. People I work with are always saying that about me.
Wandering around the exhibition, you start noticing little riddles hidden away in each and every piece. It’s not just a Wonder Woman bust here or an Aquaman Trident there. There are little details in every part, and it is a lot of fun looking for them.
Many parents want to share their childhood heroes and villains with their kids, and we are seeing a new generation of artists paying homage to our geeky loves. But with precious childhood memories at stake, artists have a responsibility to stay true to form, a balance between paying your respects to the original while envisioning a new path of creativity.
One of the “side themes” in the exhibition is his own interpretation of Cubism and not in that bricky way.
EGM: Loved the section on Cubism. Is Picasso one of your favorites?
Nathan: He is obviously an amazing artist but for me it wasn’t really drawing off of Picasso because his type of cubism is a little different from that (section). That was more of just trying to experiment a bit about color. In fact, I call it the squint test.
Nathan: Can you “squint” and still tell who they are? So much of superheroes is about color and costume… I wanted to expand on that and try a different type of building. And that’s what led me to this “cube-like” building.
Nathan: It’s not traditional cubism… I created my own rules for myself, rules to the creations and to the boxes. It had to fit a certain scale or form. It is a bit different to my past examples, but I really liked it.
Now, I can hear you thinking: “Is this exhibit still okay for children?”
OH YEAH! It is absolutely for the kids! My spawnlings are going to love it: Sinister (9yo) and Nefarious (6yo) will be inspired while Zaltu (2yo Goddess of Mischief) is just going to stand in front of Batgirl and Wonder Woman all day. I think we’ll be going more than once over our Summer Holidays.
Of course Nathan made this exhibition accessible for fans of all ages. Nathan is passionate about bringing art and kids back together. Not just in a “comforting relaxing manner,” but in a truly educational and inspiring form.
Nathan is a huge advocate for STEAM, with the inclusion of Art in the typical STEM to provide kids with a full range of expression. He believes so strongly in it, he wants to show people how they can incorporate art as a priority in their lives. Bring Art back into schools as just another normal element of everyday education, not something that is considered a “breather” between English and Math. Using Lego to make his point is both evil and genius.
While the Art of the Brick is pretty famous, not as many people know about his side project–the Art Revolution Foundation, an organization promoting art for happiness, health, and education. Through Art Revolution Foundation, Nathan raises awareness and funds to put art supplies in all kids’ hands through schools and community projects.
EGM: Both myself personally, and at GeekMom, we are very much into STEAM. We love the idea of the Art Revolution Foundation. So… how’s it going?
Nathan: It’s great. We are about to make our first grant from the Foundation.
Nathan: It was really only conceptualized last year (2014). This past year has been more about the fundraising and there’ll just be more and more of that.
EGM: With your Foundation and your exhibits, I’m sure a lot of people come up and talk to you about the artistic side. Do you ever get excited about the scientific/technical side?
Nathan: It’s a perfect fit. A mix of both. Take gravity, you really start to get a feel for that fine line of balance between what you want to show, and how to show it without it falling over. That’s art and physics right there.
EGM: Keeping all of this in mind, do you still get excited about new Lego pieces or are you just about “the block”?
Nathan: <insert evil laugh> Oh, I still get excited. But to be honest, there is not a lot of use for those elements in the art. I like building with the traditional brick. It brings more excitement; more of a challenge.
Nathan: The child in me is still excited when a new set comes out with new elements. In fact, there are a few pieces in the exhibit where I’ve tried to include that.
I’m not going to spoil too much more of this. You really have to see it for yourself.
Art of the Brick: DC Comics had its world premiere in Sydney, Australia, on the weekend (Saturday, 21 November) at the Powerhouse Museum. I was invited along to the Media Preview to approve before opening.