Art as a hobby and art made of toys both sound like fun. So enjoy yourself at the Nassau County Museum of Art, where two shows with little in common but their venue -- "The Paintings of Louis Comfort Tiffany" and LEGO constructions by Nathan Sawaya -- open Saturday.
The 125 works of art in the Nassau show -- oils, watercolors and gouaches -- represent "about half of Tiffany's output as a painter," says museum director Karl Willers.
"Painting was more like a personal hobby," says museum educator Jean Henning as she observes the paintings arranged on the gallery floors in preparation for Saturday's opening.
Tiffany, of course, was better known for the stained-glass lamps that bore his name and other design work produced in his Flushing studio. "But he painted all his life," says Henning, "continuing after he moved into Laurelton Hall," the mansion he designed in Laurel Hollow. Two of the show's paintings offer views of Laurelton Hall.
But much of Tiffany's inspiration came from his early travels to Egypt. "He was influenced by Orientalism," says Willers, gazing at "Travelers Near Cairo." But it was the desert light that Tiffany strove to capture. "His idea of beauty is the lusciousness of light and color," Willers says. "Technically, he was very proficient. Sometimes he varnished his paintings to make them sparkle as if the paint was still wet."
Tiffany's landscape style, Luminism, was expressed more overtly in his lamps, where the color was in the glass rather than painted on, and light passed directly through. For visual reference, the show includes a few lamps and stained-glass works. But all 125 paintings come from a Long Island collector who loaned them on condition of anonymity.
Besides his light-infused landscapes, Tiffany, an early proponent of watercolor as finished art, also produced still lifes and figurative paintings. Despite his hobbyist status, Tiffany paintings were exhibited by the National Academy Museum and the American Watercolor Society in his lifetime. Tiffany died in 1933.
'Nathan Sawaya: Recent Works'
Until 2004, corporate attorney Nathan Sawaya created his Lego sculptures as a hobby. Now, he can see the offices of his former employer, Winston & Strawn, from his Gramercy Park studio. "I was an attorney, and now I play with toys," Sawaya says. "I left to pursue my passion."
Now, his passion is paying off. "I had one collector say to me, 'I have a Warhol, and my kids don't care. Now, I have a Sawaya, and they're impressed,' " the artist recalls.
Museum exhibitions have given his Lego creations the imprimatur of fine art. The only reason he's missing Saturday's opening of his Nassau museum show, he says, is a conflict with a bigger opening in Sydney, Australia.
His first solo show, 2007 in Lancaster, Pa., drew 25,000 at a museum that usually draws 35,000 visitors annually. "Word started getting around after that," Sawaya says.
"The Courage Within," one of the pieces included in the Nassau show, symbolizes the bold career step he took. A red face emerges from the chest of a gray-suited figure. In "Goodbye," a waving figure leaves its past behind. Collectively, the works in the Nassau show are "literally about being trapped emotionally," Sawaya says.
The five Lego works, including the 8-foot-tall "Pushing Against" that's pressing toward the ceiling, occupy the Nassau museum's cozy Contemporary Gallery upstairs.
"It's very accessible art," Sawaya says. "People who've never been to an art museum will bring their families to see this."
Louis Comfort Tiffany paintings / Nathan Sawaya LEGO art
INFO 516-484-9338, nassaumuseum.com
ADMISSION $10 ($4 ages 4 to 12) $2 parking on weekends