Sculptures carved to fit in the eye of a needle

“I’m working on two sculptures at the moment,” artist Willard Wigan says. “One is of Elton John sat at his grand piano the other is of The Beatles peering through the portholes of the Yellow Submarine.” The subject of the art may be conventional, but their creation defies belief. Both sculptures are small enough to pass through the eye of a needle. That’s right. The eye of a needle. They are so astonishingly, incredibly, unbelievably, tiny that they would be lost in the surface area of the full stop at the end of this sentence. Now that’s small.

Story by Andy Round

Crafted from grains of sand, flecks of gold or impossibly small pieces of nylon, when complete the sculptures will take pride of place on a pinhead. Literally they have to be seen to believed. And you’ll need a microscope.

So far Wigan’s work has included a Scottie dog on a grain of sand, a polar bear on a grain of sugar and an astonishing likeness of Prince Charles on a cocktail stick. One of his most celebrated works features sculptures of king Henry VIII with his six wives all displayed in the eye of a needle. His favourite work of 2009 was a sculpture of President Barak Obama and his family waving from the eye of a needle.

“I have to fall into a meditative state to work,” Wigan says. “I have to feel like a dead man otherwise there are problems. The pulse in my fingers can be disruptive so I work between heartbeats. Once I accidently inhaled a couple of figures from a tableau of Alice In Wonderland I was creating in the eye of a needle. It wasn’t the first time something like that happened. You just have to start again.”

Wigan cuts his works using a microscope and minute tools created from impossibly small diamond shards. The sculptures are then painted using an eyelash or, more amazingly, the hair from the back of a fly. “The creation of the work is absolute agony. I have to work at night when traffic vibrations are limited and there are fewer dust particles in the air or static. I don’t enjoy the process at all. I do it for the end result, the completed work. The problem is that I’m obsessed with creating smaller and smaller sculptures and I love the reactions of people when they see my work.”

One of those people was entrepreneur David Lloyd, the former captain of the British Davis Cup tennis team who sold his leisure club business for US$600 million. Lloyd was so impressed by Wigan’s work that he bought his entire collection of 70 pieces reported as being valued at US$22 million.

Among the purchases were a Bart Simpson on a pinhead; a Green Clown; the Statue of Liberty in the eye of a needle; Marilyn Monroe on a diamond; a dressage horse on a pin; a boxing match between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston, er, on a match; Peter Pan and children on a fish hook; A model of the Titanic on the tip of a pin. Anyway you get the idea.

At the time of the sale, Lloyd commented, “Willard is a genius and he deserves recognition for his unique and unbelievable work". Just months later, HRH Prince Charles awarded Wigan an MBE for services to art.

It’s been a long journey from the 51-year-old’s troubled childhood when he was victimised by teachers because of undiagnosed learning difficulties. “They used to make me feel like nothing,” he remembers. “So I would abscond from school and hide at home. I used to watch the ants in the shed and one day I started to build small houses and furniture for them using a splinter from my father’s razor blade and shards of wood. I was only five and I became an ant landlord. I felt great. I felt I was something. I liked the fact that my teachers thought I was nothing. So I built something from nothing. Nothing doesn’t exist, there is always something and I loved finding it.”

As Wigan grew older he trained his body to enter a deep form of meditation by learning to stand motionless for hours at a time. He then honed his steady skills by balancing tiny ball bearings on the tips of his fingers. “I felt like an athlete in training. I used to pass thread through the eye of a needle thousands of time to improve my dexterity and I was constantly challenging myself to make smaller and smaller things. One day it was clothes for an ant, the next it was a bicycle for a mite. I was constantly amazing myself. I saw it as a gift; a form of compensation for my problems at school.”

After leaving his troubled education, a short stint as a factory worker and, incredibly, a lucrative sideline as a body-popping robotic dancer, Wigan began to hone his creative skills in his day job producing and successfully selling traditionally sized wooden sculpture in his UK hometown of Birmingham. At night, however, he would pursue his vision of a micro universe populated by characters only he could see.
“About 10 years ago I decided to set myself a challenge,” he remembers. “I found the bigger the work, the easier it was for me, so I decided to go as small as I could and produced a model of The Last Supper, Jesus and the 12 disciplines in the eye of a needle. I showed a friend and suddenly before I knew it I was being invited on television.” Today Wigan jokes that his mother always promised that something big would come from something small.

But after all the acclaim, how does the artist cope with the level of disbelief and scepticism that his work inspires? “Scientists sometimes can’t believe it, but I’ve never had a problem showing them how I work.”

Wigan’s agents are now organising a world tour. The artist, meanwhile, is psyching himself up for his next artistic challenge. After Elton John and The Beatles he wants to focus on celebrities such as Beyonce, Johnny Depp and Julia Roberts. “I like to bring celebrities down to size,” he laughs. “Less is more in every sense.”

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