Just a few weeks ago, we presented part of the series “In Pieces” by LEGO artist Nathan Sawaya and hyper-real photographer Dean West. As luck would have it, we got the chance to sit down with both artists to talk about the project and their upcoming show at New York City’s Openhouse Gallery beginning Thursday, February 28th. Take a look below for the full interview.
How did you two end up working together?
N: It started out when Dean initially contacted me with the idea of using LEGO. This was all via Skype because Dean was in Australia and I was in New York so I was just waiting to see where this was going. I didn’t really know if this was leading anywhere so I said well if you really believe in this, why don’t you come to New York? We’ll have a meeting and see what we can do together. And wouldn’t you know it, a week and a half later Dean was sitting in my art studio, and that kind of showed you know, he’s committed to it. So I sat down and started talking to him and that’s how it all began. We really just took it from there.
So it all progressed relatively quickly?
N: Well from there it took 3 years to actually get it to this point. So, you know, Dean – jump in, you were there too!
D: Yeah that’s right, about two weeks after I spoke with Nathan I was in New York – meeting with Nathan in the studio and we already had a lot to work on because it’s quite a process to get to know somebody and understand how they work. So basically Nathan and I worked for a little bit, then I went back to Australia and three months later I moved to North America, and we kind of started working on the project in September 2009.
By then, Nathan and I had talked about enough that we were heading in a specific direction with references that we were drawn to and images, styles, and aesthetics that we both agreed on. Then we kind of just embarked on this journey across America, starting in Los Angeles, and that’s really the beginning of how the whole project began.
And the journey across the States was to find these locations featured in the series?
D: Yes that’s correct. We knew that we were looking to capture iconic landscapes of America, but it was also a feeling out process for Nathan and I, to get to know how each other work. Nathan got to see how I approached photography and how we made that happen along with a lot of conversations about what Nathan was going to build and how we were going to integrate everything. And so there was a lot of going back and forth across the desert just to get to know each other because it’s quite a collaborative process.
What did the creation process consist of?
N: It started off from a point where we were coming up with general concepts and there were a lot of mornings where we just sat over a cup of coffee. We’d go to a diner in New York when Dean was in town, or if I was in Toronto, we’d just sit and sketch out ideas on napkins, and kind of just come up with a concept. Part of that, of course, was what Dean was referring to: concepts coming to life while driving across the country and just seeing locations.
So it was an interesting project from a collaborative stance because almost everything I’d done before that was all just out of my own mind, working alone, so here was a chance to really bounce ideas off of someone and get a strong reaction immediately. For me it was an interesting journey and it obviously worked out really well.
What was the dynamic like between the post-production work on the computer and the physical construction of the sculptures?
D: They definitely do compliment each other and it’s surprising that in comparison to the size of the project, very little of that time was actually spent on the computer. By the time Nathan and I sketch out ideas, photograph the background, and Nathan builds the sculptures, the post-production happening on the computer is really just the very last stage. It’s really just the product of months and months and months of scouting, idea creation and photography, and just knowing exactly what things should be placed first. So the computer stage which probably does come forward as a strong presence in imagery is really just the vehicle at the very end of a long ordeal of events.
Could you elaborate on the idea behind the series of identity as a cultural creation becoming commercialized and manipulated?
D: Well basically this whole project started when I approached Nathan and we talked about imagery that was about identity – how people construct their own beings, their own lives, and how they end up in a specific place. We realized that both of our processes really did have a lot of creation from scratch.
My modern photography techniques also fit seamlessly into Nathan’s sculptures. The narrative and aesthetic, and basically the way he constructs a sculpture, is very similar to the basic construction of a digital photograph. The identity construction is really just showcasing these awkward moments of self-awareness where the subjects appear frozen and they’re in that moment where they’re thinking “Who am I? How did I arrive here?”
N: When I build a sculpture, it’s layers and layers of bricks, and these photos are layers and layers as well. Of course we’re using a very commercial product, the LEGO brick, so right away this very well-known toy brand becomes a medium as part of this project.
And with what Dean was referring to about how my scultures work with modern photography, I think one thing he might be touching on there is the pixelisation when you look at the LEGO sculptures. They do seem a bit pixelated because they’re made out of these tiny little squares and rectangles, but when you back away, you see the curves. So that is a little bit about how modern photography works, that pixelisation.
Was there a certain image or feeling you were looking to evoke?
N: We were referring a lot to the early American postcard which probably refers more to the coloring when you think about the pastels like the blues and the warm yellows.
D: That’s what’s been great. As we travelled, we came across a lot of locations that referenced the North American landscapes we had in the back of our mind – the American postcard which were basically frontal-style street scenes; really basic, unvarnished locations.
Any plans to continue working together in the future?
N: We’ve talked about continuing the series. We’re getting such strong responses from people on it so far that we probably want to continue and develop an 8th image.
In the same sort of style and aesthetic?
D: Yeah I think so. We did have some success with several of the images that raised some more interest for us to possibly create more from the same kind of style and aesthetic. So it will have the same kind of aesthetic because it is part of the same series, but I don’t know how many we’re going to create. We’re considering doing one more at the moment, it depends, we’ll see how the show goes hey Nathan? And we’ll see how many more we can create.
“In Pieces,” presented by Avant Gallery, will show at Openhouse Gallery in SOHO from February 28th to March 17th.