World’s Tiniest Masterpieces: why artist Willard Wigan is a big name in micro-art

A new Channel 4's documentary takes a magnifying glass to one man's remarkable artistic career

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You have little chance of seeing Willard Wigan’s greatest works, sculptures like his Golden Galleon, The Last Supper or Peregrine Falcon, unless, that is, you have access to a microscope or magnifying glass.

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Wigan works at a very small scale. So small that, unaided, the human eye can barely detect his sculptures. The Last Supper and Peregrine Falcon are both mounted within the eye of needles, while Golden Galleon rests on the head of a pin. Wigan held the Guinness World Records title for the smallest work of art made by hand, a motorbike he sculpted inside a single fleck of male stubble.

“When I broke the record,” he says, as we meet in a Mayfair jewellers, where he is creating a watch with tiny artworks inside the mechanism, “I wanted to show that man had made it. I pulled an eyelash from the corner of my eye, made a paintbrush and painted it. No machine can do that.”

Wigan has appeared on American chat shows, given TED talks and received an MBE, for services to art, from Prince Charles in 2007. Cameron Diaz, Elton John and Mike Tyson have all owned his works, but his proudest achievement is the tiny Coronation Crown he made for the Queen.

“I have three letters thanking me from the Queen, with delight,” he says. “That’s how happy she was to receive something that can’t be seen.”

One of seven children born to a foundry worker and brought up on a tough Wolverhampton estate in the 1960s, Wigan, now worth more than £10 million, overcame enormous early disadvantage. “Racism was in front of you all the time in the 60s,” he says. “It was on TV with Alf Garnett. Schoolkids would call you names. Enid Blyton books had golliwogs in Noddy’s picnic basket.”

Willard also struggled academically. “I had autism and dyslexia. I couldn’t spell or read. At school, they told me I was illiterate, a dunce. One teacher in particular bullied me all the time and I was made an exhibit of failure for the school. The teacher would take me round and tell all the kids, ‘This is what happens if you don’t listen to me.’ As my opinions never mattered I didn’t think I needed to speak, so I lost my speech for a while. I couldn’t talk.”

But a tiny miracle had dropped into this silent world. “When I was five I found a destroyed ant nest and I decided to build homes for all the ants because I thought they had nowhere to live, so I made them new houses. My mother saw them and was overwhelmed. She said, ‘Make furniture for the ants. Make them some shoes. Make things as small as you possibly can.’ ”

His mother had recognised Willard’s gift, the talent that would set him apart and give his life purpose. “I was one of those kids that, if I broke a twig and I picked it up and you told me I was good at breaking twigs, I would try to be the world’s greatest twig-breaker, because that’s the kind of thing autism does. But my mum didn’t say, ‘You are going to break twigs.’ She said, ‘You are going to make microscopic sculptures.’”

William and Kate 2011
William and Kate 2011

The young Willard used broken bits of razor blade to carve matchsticks into ever smaller shapes, constantly encouraged by his mother to do better. “She would always tell me my work was not small enough, that it was too big.”

Today, Wigan improvises tools out of the claws of insects and tiny acupuncture needles that he coats with diamond dust, allowing him to cut through ultra-hard materials like Kevlar and enabling him to work at a tiny scale without fear of his work breaking.

He has a unique way of working, which allows the well-built 61-year-old – broadshouldered and over six feet tall – to enter a zen-like state of stillness. “You can feel your pulse in your finger so I squeeze the finger to close the vibration down, avoid the tremors. And I work between heartbeats because the slightest movement can cause problems. I have learnt how to do that through years and years of controlling. I call it dead working; your body is dead, in effect.”

Yet at the same time, he listens to music. “The Carpenters, Burt Bacharach, Steve Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Hendrix, Santana, all the greats, all the best musicians.” Most of us would be tempted to tap our feet. Not Wigan. “When I’m not working I just keep quiet. I’ve trained my attention span, trained my patience,” he says. “I will stay still for six hours – just deliberately sit there, doing nothing, no moving.”

He wears a T-shirt when he works – sleeves are dangerous – and avoids stimulants. “I don’t drink coffee or tea. No caffeine, no alcohol. I do exercise, drink lot of water, eat lots of salad, fill my body with lots of veg and fish. No arguments, I don’t want to argue with anybody. You can debate, but no arguments. Equilibrium.”

Mad Hatters Tea Party 2005
Mad Hatters Tea Party 2005

A single piece can take up to five weeks to complete, with Wigan working up to 18 hours a day, and the threat of disasters is never far away.

“A fly flew past when I was working on a sculpture and blew it away,” he says. “The breeze from the fly’s wings was like a hurricane. I was once working on a little Chanel bottle for my friend and it jumped like tiddly winks and just disappeared. I started to cry then looked in the mirror and there was something glistening on the end of my nose: I took a piece of Blu Tack, put it under the microscope and there it was.”

In micro-art, even phone calls are a threat. “I was finishing an Alice in Wonderland piece. I’d made the Mad Hatter, the tea cups and pot, the hare, a tablecloth with ribbons on it. I went to lift Alice up and put her in the middle and my mobile phone went off. I breathed in as I answered and Alice was inhaled, gone somewhere in my sinuses.”

In his work, Wigan often re-interprets folk stories and fantasy, but his art also references race, giving an extra layer of meaning to works like Galleon. “When colonisation came about it was a ship that took us to these various destinations.” Last year he broke his own Guinness record with a tiny embryo, which, he says, “represents the beginning, where we came from – all the great people came from there, they all started small. That’s my message, that is where I come from. When I was young, my mother would say to me, ‘The biggest things are the smallest things.’”

Coronation Crown 2012
Coronation Crown 2012

Wigan is not the only micro-artist; some create far smaller nano-sculptures in the laboratory – but he is not impressed with such a technical approach. ‘There are guys using nanotechnology, laser printing and stuff like that,” he says, “but I don’t call that miraculous, I call it machine. Yes, there is nanotechnology that can go down really small, but it is not done by hand. I’m not the only person who has made small sculpture but I have made the smallest in history and I’d challenge anybody to beat that by hand.”

He then gives me an astounding example of the extremes he will go to for his art. “I tried to use an eyelash to paint the embryo but it was too big. So I used a floating fibre – you see them in the light when the sun comes through the window – to make a paint brush. That was the only way I could paint it.”

Wigan’s small sculptures cost upwards of £40,000 each, the watch he is working on will sell for £150,000. “It’s not about the money,” he says. “Money’s not my god. I just do it because my mum told me to and I enjoy the result. She died 23 years ago, but she knew what was coming. I had a habit for making small things, an extreme habit. She just made sure I used it to the biggest effect. Pound for pound, the ant is the strongest creature on the planet. And if someone doesn’t speak, it doesn’t mean they are not saying something.”

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World’s Tiniest Masterpieces is on Sunday 8th July at 10pm on Channel 4