'The Art of the Brick': LEGO bricks come to life at Cincinnati Museum Center

CINCINNATI — When people walk through "The Art of the Brick" exhibit that opens Friday at the Cincinnati Museum Center, they will encounter 118 pieces of art made entirely of LEGO bricks. 

Photos: Inside 'The Art of the Brick'

Yes, LEGOs, the almost universally recognized, interlocking plastic toys for children. Displays range from LEGO reproductions of Van Gogh's "The Starry Night" to original three-dimensional sculptures by exhibit creator Nathan Sawaya.

'The Starry Night'

"People contact me more about 'Yellow' than any other sculpture," Sawaya said of one of his signature original pieces. "I think part of it is it reaches out to people and it connects with them. They see it as just giving your all, opening yourself up and just everything pouring out.”

"Yellow" by Nathan Sawaya.

That outpouring is reflected in Sawaya's work and evolution as an artist. He dreamed of being a sculptor in college, but after graduation took a more practical career path.

"What does a budding artist do after college?" Sawaya joked. "They go to law school."

The dream of being an artist persisted, though. While working as a lawyer, Sawaya continued to sculpt in traditional media. He then resumed building with LEGOs, a habit he began at New York University.

'The Great Wave'

"I would come home late at night and need some sort of creative outlet," he said. 

By 2007, Sawaya had amassed enough LEGO sculptures to stage his first “Art of the Brick” exhibit in New York City. Its success allowed him to quit his day job.

'American Gothic'

Sawaya says he ultimately chose to use LEGOs for his art because it “makes art accessible.”

As “The Art of the Brick” traveled the world over the past decade, the medium was immediately recognized, drawing young and old to the exhibit, Sawaya said.

'Girl with a Pearl Earring'

The artist also has drawn inspiration from exhibit locations for new pieces. For example, visitors to the Cincinnati Museum Center will see one of Sawaya's latest creations, a LEGO sculpture of one of the Queen City's flying pigs.

"As the artist, I've taken it upon myself to add certain sculptures that are representative of where the exhibit is displayed," he said.

The pig's wings are made from recycled LEGO bricks that parents and children have donated to Sawaya.

'Mona Lisa'

Sawaya hopes his work inspires people to explore their own creativity. “It only takes one brick,” said the artist, who has amassed nearly 4.5 million LEGO bricks in his own workshop.

Eilzabeth Pierce, president and CEO of Cincinnati Museum Center, hopes the exhibit also inspires a future generation of Cincinnati architects, scientists and artists. The exhibit runs through May.

“The power of LEGO bricks are their versatility,” she said. “They can become anything in the hands of someone who has an active mind and an eager imagination. The complex, magnificent structures of 'The Art of the Brick’ are created out of a simple, accessible medium that nearly every adult and child is familiar with.”

To that end, the museum is also hosting monthly “LEGO Design and Build” contests, with different themes for each month. Judges will select winning LEGO submissions from four age groups. Those pieces will then be displayed in the Museum Center.  

The museum also will host an interactive LEGO exhibit for children. The feature, called Brickopolis, will contain both LEGO and Duplo blocks that allow young visitors to explore their imaginations. The Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana LEGO Users Group (OKILUG) alsowill display a LEGO city they built as part of Brickopolis. It will be located in the Children's Museum area.

Get more information about “The Art of Brick,” including hours of operation, monthly contest themes and ticket prices, at the Cincinnati Museum Center website. And see a history of LEGO in the timeline below.

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