An hour at this new exhibit brings us back to our youth
By Liam Newbigging | May 11, 2023
It’s the day of the media preview for Telus World of Science Edmonton’s (TWOSE) new exhibit, the Art of the Brick. I’m sitting in a little out-cove amphitheatre, sipping a bitter Starbucks coffee that I’m not allowed to have past the authoritarian gates leading to the exhibits. There is noise all around. Munchkins of all sorts scurry up and down the halls, through the lines, around the teachers and past the parents, occasionally taking a pause to consider something educational and then returning to wreak havoc on the not-so-good acoustics of the TWOSE. As far as I can see, I am the only adult not accompanied by at least one, if not an army of children, and I just have to sit awkwardly because I’m 15 minutes early to this whole ordeal.
I remember this out-cove amphitheatre. It was fifteen years ago, in this exact spot, that I learned that I could make my own homemade carbonated beverage using dry ice. Back then, I was the gremlin wreaking havoc, and this was probably my favourite place in the entire city. I had birthday parties here, I was absolutely obsessed with their robotics feature exhibit, and it was the highlight of the year when the whole school would bomb out for a day trip. I’m sure many Edmontonians have memories like that, but how often do we actually come here as adults?
Even as I’m standing with all the other media, I can’t ignore the entire grade six class that was brought out to enjoy this preview. I’m not one to frown upon adults enjoying things like toys, comic books, video games or even My Little Pony. I’m guilty of at least three of those things (#TeamTwilightSparkle). But this was something different. While surrounded by a bunch of motley kids, it’s hard to see what appeal there is for adults to come to TWOSE, other than being a parent/teacher. What would I get out of it? Is it really productive or conducive to anything important?
I feel like this is the sort of stigma that Nathan Sawaya has had to combat throughout his career as an artist. I imagine him sitting in an expensive suit in a stuffy New York City law office, looking down on the whole rat race, daydreaming about building Lego, and asking himself if he could ever make it work. He would have to face the vile scrutiny of jaded adults like me, after all. At some point, for Sawaya, those self-doubts must have stopped because he took that terrifying step away from the security of an ivory tower and lawyer paycheques and into the disparaged and starving world of modern art.
“I wasn’t happy as the lawyer,” Sawaya says, standing in front of a 12-foot-long Lego T-rex skeleton. “But I found creating art made me happy, and I started looking into creating art just as a tool.”
He still dresses like a lawyer — his shoes are way too polished for an artist. And he wears a nice suit that’s black from head to toe, a stark contrast to his colourful bricks. He makes a point of working extensively with the classic red, blue, yellow, and greens out of nostalgia for his youth. In the exhibit, he hangs out between that massive dinosaur and his most iconic creation, “Yellow.” That’s the sculpture of the yellow Lego person whose ripped-open chest spills out bricks. You can see it on all the ads, the TWOSE website, and even in a Lady Gaga music video.
This story of his, the one where he is an unhappy lawyer who drops everything to make world-class art out of Lego, is one I read about three or four times while researching him. I’m pretty sure it’s brought up in each interview he’s done from CNN to Stephen Colbert, and I hear him speak about it at least one other time while at the exhibit. Once again, I have to wonder about Sawaya. Doesn’t he get tired of that? Wouldn’t he rather discuss a different aspect of his story, a different focus of his life? But perhaps it’s integral to his art, this rejection of the adult, or the rejection of what being an adult has to look like, in favour of the appeal of childlike wonder and the ability to create freely for the sake of just creating.
The first room is all about the classics. Just as the advertisements claim, he’s recreated humanity’s canon of timeless art in the medium of Lego. I’m not an art critic, but there’s something about the dimensions of these pieces that I find appealing. The abstract of an infinity of squares and rectangles formed into the concrete shapes of history’s greatest works kind of blows me away. The marble sculptures and the Easter Island head really stand out. Sawaya says, “These bricks are accessible to so many people, especially kids, because they are familiar with this as a toy.” He points out that it can act as an introduction for children to start thinking about art and creativity.
After the classics, I get a glimpse into Sawaya’s more creative pieces that reflect his individuality as an artist. The walls around me turn dark, the lights dim, and four brightly coloured Lego skulls hang on a jet-black wall, taunting me — one yellow, one red, one green, and one blue. It’s the kind of thing that screams “memento mori,” but it’s made of a children’s toy, one that is so familiar, so nostalgic, especially with the colours. And their shapes form a frightening geometry that is unnaturally sharp yet stunning. This piece is called “Skulls.”
Once I’m at the end of the exhibit, just as we were promised during the introduction, there are piles of Lego bricks filled with creations that the now absent sixth graders have abandoned. I snap a couple of pictures of the piles and slowly walk around observing while my mind starts to wander back to the rest of my day. My watch is telling me I’ve already been here for an hour, there’s a bunch of work to get through back at headquarters, and I doubt I’ll be getting much story from these inanimate objects.
But work can wait a couple of minutes. I have a feeling I can use some of these yellow ones with a couple of these black ones to make a smiley face or maybe a bumble bee.