Artist Behind World’s Smallest Microsculptures, Willard Wigan, Explains His Process

After a long Skype call with microsculpter Dr. Willard Wigan—honored by Guinness World Records and Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II alike for his contributions to art—there is a lot to ponder.

Willard Wigan
Photo courtesy of Willard Wigan

In conversation, The Birmingham, UK-born artist of Jamaican descent hooks you with an Idris Elba-esque assurance as he tells his story; with little prompting, he opens with details of his tumultuous school life as an autistic child, and eventually arrives at the recent moment when the Queen displayed one of his sculptures in her home study.

For the child who was told by his teachers that he would “never amount to anything,” the cherry on the cake came last year, when Wigan received an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick.

It’s a dreamlike sequence of events, but such achievements come at a cost for Wigan. Just listening to him describe his process is dizzying: Wigan works with a microscope, acupuncture needles, and a microsurgery syringe. He uses an eyelash as a paintbrush, and his pulse to chip away at his sculptures. Without so much as a hint of absurdity, he describes one particular moment when he breathed in while at work and accidentally inhaled one of his sculptures.

Listen in to our conversation with Dr. Willard Wigan, about his process and the work which he says drives him so mad he sometimes feels like he needs to see a shrink.

Willard Wigan 4 seasons trees
4 Seasons © Willard Wigan

Cailin Loesch: First, we must ask you to describe your process for sculpting on such a small scale. As someone in the dark about how you do it, it’s difficult to imagine how it is even possible!

Willard Wigan: The process is having to keep your hands still. That’s number one. And it’s not just keeping your hands steady, it’s what you do while your hands are still, right? You have to have tools small enough to make the work. Your tools have to be specially made. So I use a microscope to look through, of course, ’cause the work is so tiny. My tools are made up of little acupuncture needles, and also a microsurgery syringe. I break a tiny little microscopic valence of diamond, and those little bits of diamond go into the end of the syringe. And then I cut the syringe off, and I get a toothpick. I insert a little hole into the front of the toothpick, push the tiny little bit of syringe in there. In my hand I have a tiny little blade, so in my other hand is an acupuncture needle with a little hook on the end. So in order to create the sculpture, I may take… like for instance, I made a church out of a grain of sand.

Willard Wigan St. Bartholomew's Church
St. Bartholomew's Church, carved from a grain of sand. © Willard Wigan

"So, when I’m working away, I’m not enjoying it at all. It’s driving me mad. I must admit, there is no pleasure, the only pleasure is when I’m finished. Sometimes I think I need to see a shrink when I’m doing this work."

Willard: So I take a tiny little piece of sand, hold it down, and then I use my pulse like a little jackhammer, which starts to chip away [at the sand] as I’m holding it. And it starts to chip away at the shape of the church. So I can spend up to four weeks doing this probably 16 hours a day ‘til I get the shape. But sometimes I work on five at a time. I use different types of material, like nylon, or kevlar, or gold. And I make other tools, little microscopic tools, to manipulate, and twist, and bend, and cut the gold. And then to paint my work, I use an eyelash glued onto the end of a needle. And then I start to paint with an eyelash. Now, as I’m painting away, my pulse is moving like that [motions up and down with hand]. So what I have to do is work between the pulse speed. So, when I’m working away, I’m not enjoying it at all. It’s driving me mad. I must admit, there is no pleasure, the only pleasure is when I’m finished. Sometimes I think I need to see a shrink when I’m doing this work. [all laugh] It’s driving me crazy.

Willard Wigan Little Miss Muffet
Little Miss Muffet in the eye of a needle. © Ripley's Believe It or Not

As irritating as it is, the glory is at the end, you see. Because when you get the Queen of England liking your work, you know, when the Queen of England says “I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” you know you’ve done something special. It’s a nightmare, but a dream when you finish. It’s also inspirational for a lot of people because, coming from my background, ‘cause I’m autistic, it gives an inspirational message to kids who have an autistic tendency, or who have Aspergers, you know, who feel as though the doors are closing up. Who feel like they can’t get any direction in life. I was one of these kids who...I never got bitter, I get better. And that’s what I did. Because I started school 1962, and back then it wasn’t easy for me. I’m gonna let you ask me some questions! [all laugh]

Willard Wigan Girl with a Pearl Earring
Girl with a Pearl Earring, sculpted and oil painted nylon with a 24 carat gold frame and a shard of pearl. © Willard Wigan

Hannah Loesch: No, no, it’s great! I’m wondering what you think is the best way for people to see your work, because it’s so small. Is it through photos, is it looking at it in person through a microscope?

Willard: One second. [Holds up microscope]

Cailin: So when you have exhibits, how does that work? Do you have blown-up photos next to the work?

Willard: What I do is I have a trail of these microscopes, and they’re all in globes. People can go along and press a button and look through the microscopes, and you can see [the work] perfectly.

Willard Wigan Hollywood Sign
Hollywood Sign, made out of fragments from the original Hollywood Sign, in the eye of a needle. © Willard Wigan

"The smaller I made my work, the bigger my name became."

Hannah: I’ve read that it was actually your mother who encouraged you to make small art when you were a child...she always told you that your work wasn’t small enough and to try again. What do you believe was significant to her about the size of your sculptures?

Willard: In life, we underestimate a lot. Human beings have a habit of using the word “nothing.” We have a habit of saying “not enough.” Or, “you haven’t got enough qualifications,” or “you’re not capable,” or “we can’t see.” “I don’t know.” “Nothing.” That word ‘nothing’ resonates in my mind. I wanted to express that ‘nothing’-ness to show people that less can be so much more. Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If you tell me that I can’t do something, I’m gonna tell you I can. You see what I mean? I’m gonna show you there’s no such thing as nothing. I’m gonna show you how big ‘nothing’ really is. When you look through that microscope you’re gonna see just how big my work really is. When you know the Queen of England has one of my sculptures in her private study, when you know you’ve been rewarded with an MBE from Her Majesty The Queen, and you’ve been invited back to Buckingham Palace twice because of what you’ve done. My mother was right. The smaller I made my work, the bigger my name became.

Willard Wigan Eyeglasses
Look Closely, solid gold spectacles on the head of a 2mm-diameter pin. © Willard Wigan

Cailin: True! You mentioned to us, and it’s also a line on your website, that you don’t find the process of creating these sculptures to be particularly enjoyable, because it is so physically and mentally exhausting. I find this fascinating because it so goes against advice that young people hear all the time, to “do what you love!” What is your answer to this?

Willard: Well, sometimes people do, but they don’t love what they’re doing. They love that the people are loving what they’re doing. Sometimes people enjoy singing, sometimes people go into a ring and they box, and they enjoy that. Some don’t. Some enjoy the result when they win, some hate it when they lose. But it’s not about losing, it’s about what you do when you get back up. It’s about what you do after you lose. See what I mean? So, my work is a message of endurance, and it’s almost telling people that if you climb a wall, climb a mountain. You know? You’re climbing.

Willard Wigan Mad Hatter
The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, gold, kevlar and nylon sculpture in the eye of a needle. gold, kevlar and nylon sculpture in the eye of a needle. © Willard Wigan

You started on the bottom and you’re working to the top. So I’m never satisfied with the bottom, or the middle. I want the top. And perhaps above the top, if I can get there. My work is my voice. It depicts me. Because when I was a very young kid, I couldn’t spell, I couldn’t read. Still can’t do that now. So one of my teachers would take me around the school and tell all the kids about me, and say, “This is failure. This is what happens when you don’t listen to the teacher. You become Willard. Willard does not want to become, Willard is failure.” Like Nanny McPhee. She looked a little bit like that. I would say my school teacher, she wasn’t a nice woman, so I’m gonna tell the world. She used to look like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. [all laugh] I’m gonna get my own revenge back. My revenge is success.

Willard Wigan Pinocchio
Pinocchio, nylon sculpture painted with Wigan's eyelash in the eye of a needle. © Willard Wigan

Hannah: Does this teacher know the Queen of England has your work displayed in her home study? [laughs]

Willard: It’s an honor to know that something that you can’t see has meant so much to so many people.

Cailin: You know what I have to ask? You’re the Guinness World Record holder for the smallest sculpture. What was the precedent for you? ‘Cause you described how when you were a kid your mom wanted your art to be smaller, but how did you even know that something like this was possible? Was there already somebody out there who was doing microsculptures?

Willard Wigan The Last Supper
Nylon and gold sculpture in the eye of a needle. © Willard Wigan

Hannah: ...And you said, “I’m going to make mine even smaller?”

Willard: I didn’t really have a perception of anything other than small things. I used to see if I could find some fairies in the garden. I used to get up sometimes early in the morning and go up to the top of the garden, and sit there during the night to see if I could see some little people. I used to make little plates and add little bits of foil and little bits of food in, and I used to put it down and wait to see if the little people would come. But a mouse came instead. … Throughout history, I’m not the only person who’s made small sculptures, but I make the smallest in history.

Willard Wigan Moon Landing
The Moon Landing, sculpted from kevlar and nylon with glass in the eye of a needle. © Willard Wigan

"One time I was working on one of my sculptures and I breathed in and I inhaled it. So that was gone. That’s a difficult part. But I had to get over it and do it again."

Hannah: What is the most difficult step or aspect of micro-sculpting, and what have you found is the best way to make it work?

Willard: The most difficult part of my work, I suppose, is not making a mistake. I would say the second difficult part is overcoming not stopping, and not wanting to stop. When you’re working away, sometimes you just wanna stop. You don’t wanna do anymore, ‘cause it’s driving you mad. It’s just driving you crazy. But you just get over it if something goes wrong. One time I was working on one of my sculptures and I breathed in and I inhaled it. So that was gone. That’s a difficult part. But I had to get over it and do it again.

Willard Wigan Robin Hood
Robin Hood, a kevlar sculpture with fabric fibers in the eye of a needle. © Willard Wigan

Cailin: Now, if you’ve been spending several weeks on a grain of sand, for example...Obviously if you inhale it, it’s gone. But if you make a mistake, like a sculptural error in the grain of sand, is that something that you can overcome, or do you have to start from scratch?

Willard: If it goes completely wrong I start again. I will start again. I won’t allow myself to fail. Because failure’s not an option, you see. In life, there’s losers and winners. And I didn’t want to lose. I wanted to be a winner. And if I don’t win the first time, I’m gonna win the second time. Mind you, losing can be good.

Willard Wigan Ak Orda Palace
Ak Orda Presidential Palace, kevlar, nylon and gold sculpture on the head of a 2mm-diameter pin. © Willard Wigan

Hannah: How so?

Willard: It’s a lesson that can teach you where you went wrong. Okay, I lost this time, next time I’m coming back. So that’s it. You’ve gotta have a competition with yourself.

Hannah: My favorite part of your story is the way you describe your accomplishments despite being told by your teachers as a child that you wouldn’t find success. What are the most important words of advice you could give to someone else who feels like you did all those years ago?

Willard Wigan Crown
24 carat gold crown with cut diamond, balanced on the head of a 2mm-diameter pin. © Willard Wigan

Willard: Just be the Ugly Duckling. You know what the Ugly Duckling turned into?

Cailin: A swan!

Willard: There you are. Just be the Ugly Duckling. Let them see what they can’t see. Let them see what’s within, what’s about to emerge.

Willard Wigan Skateboarder
Skateboarder with a 24 carat board, balanced on Wigan's own eyelash. Sculpture painted using a strand of fur from a Dalmatian. © Willard Wigan

Cailin: Which sculpture are you most proud of?

Willard: The most proud of, I think probably The Last Supper. But once I’ve made my work, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to you.

Willard Wigan 9 camels
9 camels sculpted in the head of a needle. © Ripley's Believe It or Not

For more on Willard Wigan, visit willardwiganmbe.com.

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