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Interview with Willard Wigan 2010

Willard Wigan: Promotional image

Small is beautiful, but miniscule is mighty. Chris High talks to Micro-Sculptor Willard Wigan about his new exhibition in Liverpool, his dyslexia and how he became determined to turn the Art world towards the tiny.

Bigger is generally seen as being better, yet in the case of 53 year old, Birmingham born micro-sculptor Willard Wigan’s work, the statement is categorically untrue.

Following a triumphant US tour that has seen his tiny creations exhibited in Los Angeles, Hollywood, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas and currently in Washington DC, Liverpool is now blessed by his placing of a new exhibition in the city for the second time in two years.

This time, however, not one but two World Exclusive pieces will be on display.
There is something immediately engaging about this man who stands at around six feet four inches tall, dressed as he is in a mustard coloured overcoat that covers a neat suit and white open necked shirt on this chilly Winter’s day.

His eyes seem to take everything in instantly; sizing up his surroundings, and the people in them, as though they too are exhibits. When we are finally introduced, the first thing he says having shaken hands is how much he loves the heavy leather coat I have on. But for the fact that it is probably the only decent article of winter clothing I own I’d have given it to him on the spot by way of thanks. I am, apparently, the first journalist to view, up close and personal, his new model; a miniscule representation of Humpty Dumpty that sits with arms wide, on a redbrick wall, head cocked a little to the side, wearing yellow checked pants, a white shirt and a red jacket and all of which is depicted in exquisite, micro-detail.

Sculpture of a house on a pin head by Willard WiganThe creation is “housed” in a clear plastic globe furnished with a pair of microscopes and by looking in through the walls of the globe, it is possible to just about make out the pin, but not the work itself. Having seen examples of it through the many photographs littering The Internet and beyond, and as detailed and as beautiful as the pictures are in themselves, the only way to truly appreciate the work is, as they say, in the flesh.

“My mother told me that the smaller my work, the bigger my name. I had a tough time at school and used to escape the real world by going into the woods near to where I lived and watching ants scuttling in and out from underground. I was about five or so then and thought they must be homeless or something, so I decided to build them some houses because I didn’t think they were happy down there and that was the reason why they kept coming out. It was a little fantasy world I built inside my head.”

Willard suffers from Dyslexia and other learning difficulties. This being the 1960’s, such problems were largely unknown and any excuses for poor school work were fobbed of as laziness. “I suffered academically at school and when you have learning difficulties you don’t defend yourself. There was one teacher in particular, Mrs. Adams, who taught Geography and some Maths, and she made my life a misery. She was truly wicked and used to march me from class to class announcing that I was a testament to failure. But when my mother saw the ant houses, she told me to make small things and encouraged me to continue because she totally believed that one day the world would know my name; that I was going to get bigger by getting smaller. I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but it seems she was right so it doesn’t really matter what Mrs. Adams or the others like her think any more.”  

“I’m very open about my Dyslexia because, now, I hope to be an inspiration to others who have similar learning problems. My spelling is still terrible and you could say something and I might forget it quite quickly, but its like God has thrown me a ball and I’ve caught it, held onto it and run with it. Anybody can do anything if they are prepared to try hard enough. I’m proof of that.”

And man, how he has run! His return to Liverpool in 2010 comes on the back of success in America that has seen his fame reach new heights. Being the first artist to appear on the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and having made over 20 television appearances in the US since June, including The Tonight Show, owners of his sculptures now include Prince Charles, Mike Tyson, Sir Elton John, Sir Philip Green and Simon Cowell. British tennis and fitness guru, David Lloyd, bought an entire collection after just one viewing; Wigan’s works range from $35,000 to $125,000 per piece.

“America was just incredible. They really know how to honour you and to let you know how good you are; how to make you feel good about yourself; that everything you do in your life is worthwhile. I get the same here in Liverpool, to be honest, because Scousers also know how to express themselves positively. Liverpool is just a magical place,” the artist enthused. The birthplace of The Beatles, the warmth of the people, their humour and character... everyone is just so responsive to new ideas and fashions.  The people of Liverpool gave me a magnificent reception two years ago, and so much has happened to me since, but it remains an honour.”

As was receiving his MBE in 2007 from Prince Charles, who has gone on record as saying Willard’s work and talents “defy description”.

Willard Wigan's sculpture of the incredible hulk“All of my life, I’d felt as though I’d been suffocating under this immense pressure. At that moment, standing before the future King of England, I felt for the first time that I could breathe properly. When you grow up with everyone telling you you’re a failure, a moment like that means everything.”

Throughout history there are others who have made small things, but none as miniscule as this. “I’ve taken tiny to new level, a new extremity, but of course I have inspirations. I love Michelangelo, the greatest sculptor ever in my opinion. He to me should be an inspiration to everybody.”

Using a tiny surgical blade and a shard of diamond as tools to create his sculptures from materials such as grains of sand, dust fibres, gold, platinum and spider’s cobweb, he then “paints” them with brushes made from such diverse materials as the hair from his cheek bone, a single eyelash or hair from the leg of a dead fly. Each sculpture takes between six weeks to three months to create and, as a result, the work process is both mentally and physically demanding, forcing Wigan to control his breathing and relax his body to ensure he keeps his steady hand working between his heartbeat and pulse. He does not drink alcohol or caffeine based liquids, including tea and coffee, as these will affect his hand control. Inevitably, accidents happen.

“If I make a mistake with a piece, I’ll start again and keep going and keep going. Pieces do get damaged, even destroyed, when I’m working on them. There was this one piece, twelve angels holding hands on a floating fibre, with each angel measuring about three microns [the average printed full stop is around 397 microns]. I  was just about to insert them into the eye of a needle [the eye of a needle is usually elongated, but is generally around 749 microns wide] and inhaled. That was probably the most detailed, smallest and difficult piece I’d done and it was really frustrating to lose it, but I will try again. I like to think that, one day, I can get my work down to two microns but it’ll be tough because then you are starting to craft and shape molecules.”

Possibly the most talked about piece is the Nine Camels in the Eye of a Needle. “One day, I’ll get twenty in there. It’ll probably drive me nuts, but I will do it.”

Willard arranges everything, from the materials he uses to the way the pieces are displayed. “The way in which the pieces are exhibited are my idea, then my dear friend, Jerry Elford, makes and designs the cases to my specifications. Richard BaddeleSy, who is another dear friend, takes the photographs for me once they are completed, which in themselves are beautiful. Because my work is so small the tools have to be equally as small but strong, else they’ll bend, and it’s down to me then to design them so they don’t. I’m completely hands on and although its physically and mentally draining, sometimes eighteen hours per day, it’s what I do ... my work is my legacy. ”

Music and sport are massive influences in Wigan’s work. He has sculpted several detailed effigies of Muhammad Ali, even depicting the then Cassius Clay’s fight with Sonny Liston, complete with ring and ropes, and fixing it on top of a pinhead.
“I met Ali in 1982 in Birmingham. There he was, one of the most famous people on the planet, the greatest boxer of all time. Everybody knows who he is and what he’s done. He had a real presence, an aura. Looking at him, understanding what he’d gone through to be where he was in the world, was true inspiration.”

John Lennon sculpture in a pin headAnd it's not only Willard’s boxing idols. From football, he has miniaturised the World Cup trophy using gold. From golf, he has immortalised the great Henry Cotton using dust fibre and acrylic. From Rugby Union, Jonny Wilkinson’s famous World Cup winning kick of 2003 has been held captive in nylon, acrylic and clothing fibres, whilst the ball is forever suspended between the posts by the single strand of a spider’s web; a sight to behold in the current exhibition, indeed, but not the artist’s favourite piece.

“The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and The Camels are very dear to me, but I guess the new John Lennon piece is the most pleasing. When it goes on display here, over the next few days, it’s going to amaze people I hope. I’m very excited about it. It’s just the head and not the entire body so it only took about four and half weeks to complete, but it is very detailed. I’ve included the glasses and the hair and everything. To all intents and purposes, it is one of the most famous John Lennon images made tiny and when people see it, I’m really anticipating a massive response.”

Willard’s passion then takes on a demonstrative form. Tearing the tiniest corner from a tissue, he places it in his palm. “If I were to give you that as a gift,” he says, “you wouldn’t be very impressed. But if I were to tell you that inside was a bust of John Lennon and that you could only see it through a microscope, the invisible then takes on a special significance. That’s what I enjoy, that’s the challenge. To make people understand that bigger isn’t necessarily better or more beautiful. After all, we all start life as single molecules and we all have a massive part to play in the grand scheme of things.”

Other than music and sport, Willard also relaxes in a way that might seem a little ironic. “I love to fly helicopters,” he smiles. “Little remote control ones that is, around my living room. They’re great fun and a terrific release from my work.”
So what’s next and how small will it be?  “Now I’ve completed a bust of arguably the world’s greatest music icon, the next thing to do is to create the band that made his name. I’m going to start work on The Beatles as a whole, complete with suits, drums and guitars. Even the strings on the guitars will be there and it’ll probably be smaller than the camels. I’m looking forward to that. It’s another challenge. It just keeps going. ”

Chris High with Micro-Sculptor Willard Wigan 15 Jan 2010

The Willard Wigan Exhibition takes place from January 16th to March 16th  in The Gallery of The Hard Days Night Hotel Shop, Central Buildings, North John Street, Liverpool, L2 6RR. Tickets are £3 adults, £2 Children, £8 families. Also available is Willard Wigan: I Spy With My Little Eye Published by Aldgate. For details:




If you would like to comment on this interview with Willard Wigan in January 2010, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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