Small is too big a word to describe these sculptures
Willard Wigan is famous for creating tiny artworks
Take a close look at the full stop that ends this sentence. To most people, it’s a barely visible dot. To Willard Wigan, it’s a landscape large enough to hold an entire sculpture.
The 61-year-old artist has made his name and fortune with his tiny handmade works; a church carved from a grain of salt, a gold galleon on the head of a pin, a row of nine camels strolling through the eye of a needle.
He received an MBE for his unique work in 2007, and today a Wigan sculpture usually comes with a six-figure price tag – though that includes the cost of a microscope to see it with. David Lloyd, the former tennis player, has insured his collection of 70 for more than £11-million. Other celebrity collectors include Elton John, Mike Tyson and Simon Cowell. It’s not bad going for a self-taught artist who can neither read nor write.Wigan’s latest piece, the focus of a TV documentary, makes his previous work look large. Titled The Beginning, it is a model of an unborn baby sculpted from a strand of old nylon carpet, and embedded in one of his own hollowed-out hairs.
It is just 0.08mm long, smaller than a human egg cell and completely invisible to the naked eye. It has broken the Guinness World Record for the world’s smallest handmade artwork – a record he set himself in 2013, with a 1mm motorbike made from 24-carat gold. It is his proudest achievement, but creating it almost pushed him over the edge.
“I was on it for 18 hours a day, with hardly any sleep, for three weeks,” he tells me. “It drives you insane afterwards. You start hallucinating because you’ve been looking down a microscope for such a long time.”
It’s Wigan’s most personal work yet, dedicated to his mother, who died in 1995. That carpet fibre came from his childhood home on a council estate in Birmingham, where his parents struggled to raise eight children in poverty, after moving to Britain from Jamaica. His steelworker father “was a very violent man”, says Wigan. “But my mother was always pushing me all the time, telling me I must show the world what I can do.”His autism and severe dyslexia would not be diagnosed until he was an adult. At school, teachers regularly told him he was a “dunce” who would never amount to anything. “That destroyed my confidence,” he says. “I was like an empty bucket. It’s the quicksand of despair you go into, this despair of nothingness. That hurt me.”
But Wigan had a talent, a hobby he had pursued since he was five years old. “The miniature thing started when my dog destroyed an ants’ nest,” he says. “I thought the ants were homeless! So, I took my dad’s razor blade, sliced little bits of wood and constructed houses for them. But not one ant paid me any rent! Some of them are for sale now – they’re the most expensive houses, per square foot.
“When my mother saw my work, she said: ‘If you go smaller, your name will get bigger’.”
For many years, it was his secret. “I kept it dormant – I never really told people. Then, at school, I did a carving of all the Beatrix Potter characters on the end of a toothpick. I showed the kids, and they were totally blown away. They couldn’t believe it. They’d say: ‘Please show us that!’, I’d say ‘Give me thruppence and I will’.” And so, in a small way, the school dunce had become a professional artist.Today, Wigan works with everything from platinum to spider webs, using homemade tools to shape them, such as a chisel made from a shard of diamond wedged into a hypodermic needle, or an ex-girlfriend’s eyelash used as a paintbrush.
He must have the world’s steadiest pair of hands, but there are still catastrophes. “I’ve had one stuck on the end of my nose,” he says. “I’ve inhaled some of my own work. A fly flew past once, and the breeze from its wings blew one off the table.”
He finds the process extremely stressful. “I don’t enjoy the journey, but I enjoy the end of the journey,” he explains. Each microscopic sculpture, he says, offers a new way of looking at things. “It’s a small key that can open a door as big as the world.”