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Arts / Galleries

Lego People Stop Traffic in Downtown Houston, Make Humans do Double Takes

Life-Size Figures are More Than Willing to Listen to Your Problems

BY // 07.28.18
photography Chris Letsou

Houston’s newest public art installation might look like child’s play, but it was no easy feat. The eye-catching exhibit at Allen Center meticulously brings your favorite childhood toys to life, one Lego at a time.

The Park People exhibit is just what it sounds like — with a twist. Sure enough, there are a half-dozen people lounging around the downtown park. But they’re each a monochromatic masterpiece, made of thousands upon thousands of Legos.

Each 21,000-block figure took about two to three weeks to build. They are painstakingly arranged and held together with adhesive.

You’ll find the life-like spectacles in a series of leisurely poses, relaxing with their arms crossed on their knees or sitting cross-legged on a bench.

They’re the kind of sculpture any art history major can admire, but the degree isn’t a requirement.

“This is an accessible medium. It’s something people can relate to who may not even be huge art fans. But they have this toy, or their kids have this toy, and that lets them relate to art on a different level,” artist and Lego virtuoso Nathan Sawaya tells PaperCity.

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The corporate lawyer-turned-Lego-Model-Master-Builder is known for his many Lego person projects.

These Lego people are meant to be interactive, with solitary sculptures that offer company and play captive audience to any and all gossip, advice and secrets that could never be shared with any ordinary human. But these figures do not just bridge the gap between plastic and person. They are drawing the Bayou City together.

“I think it just brings a lot of people out. Different people get to interact with each other. It’s just a different, fun thing to do. And it brings a lot of awareness to art,” Houstonian Tricia Raclan says.

She’s come today with a friend, touring the perimeter to spend time with each and every figure. Raclan is back to The Acre for the third day in the row.

She’s not the only one who can’t stay away. “It’s pretty amazing. That’s why we came back. We were here this morning. The Legos are amazing,” Tommy Gutierrez says.

Will Eggleston and his wife brought their kids to The Acre. “It’s great. We’re enjoying the outdoors, we’re enjoying the art. The kids love Legos. They were excited to come out here and see the people,” he says.

So, could his little ones create something like this with their toys at home? “They could do something like this. It’d be a little smaller,” Eggleston laughs.

Block Power

If you drive past The Acre development at 1200 Smith in downtown, you’ll see the power of the people. Humans of all ages have flocked to the open-air exhibit. Many take selfies; others snap family portraits.

Occasionally, you’ll even catch someone sitting silently next to a technically perfect toy creation. It’s different — someone meditating on art while seated next to it, rather than seated across from it at a gallery.

lego man 8
Each LEGO person took about two to three weeks to create.

For some, the appeal isn’t limited to the tactile, textured sculptures themselves. It’s more of what the installation brings to the fabric of Space City.

“I think it’s really cool. I like that Brookfield brings art into the buildings, and I love that they’ve brought it Downtown. I think it’s always really cool when you can mix art with the business side,” Brandy Clancy says.

She’s not alone in that.

“I just love stuff like this Downtown, that adds a little bit of color, a little bit unusual. It adds a little bit of diversity. It’s boring down here, everything is gray and professional,” Chris Dunne notes.

That’s just what the artist ordered. “It gives the mind a little bit of respite. It’s a pop of color, placing art where people don’t expect it,” Sawaya says.

Park People will only lounge at this location until August 10. But they’re just making a move to 2 Houston Center at 909 Fannin, where they’ll be on view from August 13th through August 24th.

The tight-lipped toy people have a pretty extensive pedigree, with stints in Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas. They even visited the White House at the end of 2016, where they kicked back on the South Lawn for a special event.

We’re guessing they’re model guests, even if they don’t succeed at the small talk.

With his recreation-turned-career resume, the real question is whether Sawaya is more in touch with his inner child or his outer adult. Either way, he’s nothing short of a Lego pro.

Sawaya’s officially endorsed by Lego as a certified Lego Master Model Builder and Professional. He got his start the way many of us did, with a Lego kit at Christmastime. At age 10, his parents wouldn’t get him a dog. So he built a life-size one for himself, entirely out of Legos.

Flash forward a few decades, and Sawaya was working at a law firm in New York. In need of an outlet, he took to art at night, whether it was drawing, painting or writing. He found himself drawn back to Legos and became lawyer by day, master builder by night.

Eventually, Sawaya left the corporate world behind to pursue his love for Legos full-time.

That meant his Metamorphosis series, a collection of figures crystallizing emotions like rage and sorrow, and the Hugman series, an assortment of 15-inch-tall figures hugging or clinging to items throughout Manhattan.

He can’t see life any other way. Sawaya sees art as a building block of life — forgive the pun.

“My mantra is ‘Art is not optional,’” he says. “Art is as important as eating and breathing.”

Sawaya may make the most of toys, but he’s not kidding around.

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