I’m a runner: Nathan Sawaya

My parents were runners, so I just assumed everyone ran. They had me on the track from a young age, probably shortly after I got my first Lego set, when I was five. The fact that we lived just outside Eugene, Oregon [known as Tracktown, USA], was a major bonus.

I remember being eight or nine years old and meeting Alberto Salazar. It was right after one of his New York City Marathon wins in the early 1980s. I asked to take a picture with him, and I got the photo blown up and framed to put on my bedroom wall.

In high school I ran for the cross country and athletics teams. I loved the 200m and 400m distances. They were just long enough for me to stride out and take on the field.

I was recruited by New York University for athletics and went to law school there, too. When I was still a lawyer I’d get boxes delivered to my apartment that were filled with Lego and I would take commissions to build things.

There is nothing more terrifying – but also exciting – than telling your boss you are quitting your job to become a Lego artist.

Because of a lack of time I wasn't running when I was a lawyer. Now I run up to five miles daily.

When I’m running, my art might be just a little bit better. I use the time on the run to brainstorm.

On one run I was thinking about the engineering challenges of building [DC comics superhero] The Flash. It needed to look like it was running but still stand on its own without toppling over. After a few miles, I realised I could use streak lines coming off him for support.

For another sculpture, I have The Flash as if you’ve caught him just as he’s putting his foot down – his foot is much flatter than a proper runner would have it, but his foot being down helps support him.

What I’ve realised with building runners out of Lego is that you can’t get the best form! You want your runner striding out, to look like the runner is running. But when you are working with Lego, making sculptures using it, you’re working with a very heavy thing that has to be supported – but there’s also a fragility to it.

Years ago I made a piece called Red Reaching, and people say it looks like the moment when you cross the finish line, with your arms raised. I like to leave it up to the viewer to decide what they see.

The connection between my life and the art I create is about pushing through obstacles. I gave up a career in law to follow my dream. It's the same with running and pushing through the wall.


The Flash, above, is part of Sawaya’s The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes exhibition, on London’s South Bank until September 3rd.