Since April, Dr. Willard Wigan MBE’s Miniature Masterpieces exhibition has been available to view for free at Wollaton Hall. As part of his ‘Disappearing World’ collection and Wollaton Hall’s transformation project, it displays sculptured pieces in the eye of a needle, never before seen on display. We delve into the exhibition in light of the life experiences that shaped Wigan into the artist who he is today…
A pivotal moment in Dr. Willard Wigan MBE’s life came in 1967, when his mother called him off the staircase to listen to a speech on television.
Born into an industrious, loving Jamaican family in 1957, Wigan struggled with undiagnosed Dyslexia and Asperger’s Syndrome at a school where the default attitude was harsh incomprehension. One teacher, frustrated that he couldn’t write his own name, paraded him from class to class, telling other students, ‘This is what failure looks like.’
Wigan was thrown onto his own resources: a fascination with nature, especially insects, and an innate artistic urge. These combined when he was upset by his dog digging up an ant’s nest. Seized by a desire to replace the ants’ home, he set to work with a razor and some wood chips to create his first nascent micro-sculpture, the first of many such ant houses. Willard’s mother instantly perceived his talents and preserved one of these houses in a box of family treasures. It is now the first item in his current exhibition at Wollaton Hall. Exceedingly small, but perceivable without assistance, this early work points the way to later tiny greatness.
The other twenty exhibits are only distinguishable as specks to the naked eye, but under microscopes are revealed in their miniscule glory. A mother tiger watches over her cub against the workings of a watch, denoting the limited time remaining to save our environment. Einstein leans against the inside of a needle’s eye, grey hair sprouting this way and that. My personal favourite is Robin Hood, a gift to the people of Nottingham after Wigan worked with underprivileged children at the Marcus Garvey Day Centre. Robin stands atop a multi-coloured woodland glade, bow aimed upwards. The sky, the image suggests, is the limit.
Back to that pivotal moment in 1967. By this time, Wigan would perch to carve on the staircase. His mother called him to watch Dr Martin Luther King addressing students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia about ‘Your life’s blueprint’. One key maxim offered was: ‘Number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity…. Don’t allow anyone to make you feel that you are nobody.’ Sage advice for anyone, but custom-made for a little boy struggling in the face of official derision. Another maxim concerned finding a sense of vocation: ‘When you discover what you’re going to be in life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you.’ Whether that vocation is large or small is beside the point: ‘If you can’t be a pine on top of the hill, be a scrub in the valley…. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be the sun, be a star, for it isn’t by size that you win or you fail. Be the best of whatever you are.’
These words were combined with Wigan’s mother’s advice: ‘The smaller you make things, Willard, the bigger your name will become’. Every carving elicited praise and the direction, ‘Try to make it even smaller.’
Owing to his extreme academic difficulties, Wigan was a withdrawn student, pouring his energies into micro-sculptures. By now, he was carving images of animals, as well as writers Beatrix Potter and William Shakespeare, into cocktail sticks, then destroying most of them so that no one could deride them. However, his dexterity also led to his creating excellent paper aeroplanes for his friends; their delight in these prompted him to finally show them some of these sculptures. Amazed, they spread word round the school, and their head teacher pressed Wigan to show him his work: instead of the expected ridicule, he was praised.
Illiterate and without formal qualifications, Wigan found work as a factory hand. Throughout this time, he continued with his inward journey, beginning to set his work within needle eyes: two camels in one, Mary holding Jesus in another. By that time, his mother was seriously ill, and these were the final works she would see. Her feedback remained consistent: go smaller, be greater. His work kept the wolf from the door, while Wigan worked creatively in his spare time. Finally prompted to go public, he began carving a life-sized sculpture of Shakespeare in Birmingham’s Corporation Street. A local businessman took notice, which snowballed into media attention, rolling Wigan ever closer to his artistic destiny.
He creates his tools and materials from found equipment and matter. An eyelash serves as a tiny jackhammer to chip a parish church out of a grain of sand, while dog hair works as a paintbrush. Shards of whisker and glass, flakes of gold and plastic, and chips of diamond and porcelain are choreographed into breath-taking works of art.
The process by which these elements are transformed is exacting. Wigan meditates before working, frequently spending between sixteen and eighteen hours per day crafting his work. It is necessary that he slows his heart rate alarmingly low (sometimes forty beats per minute) so as to reduce tremors, gusts of air, and any distraction potentially disastrous to the work’s successful completion, resulting in tremendous strain. He has remarked of his work, ‘I go through Hell’ to make it, yet the completed art and its reception repay him fully.
Having been told time and again that he would amount to nothing, Wigan takes great pleasure in demonstrating that even when there might seem to be little or nothing, there is generally still something of value, if we just take the time to look.
In Auguries of Innocence, William Blake exhorts us to ‘see a world in a grain of sand… hold infinity in the palm of your hand.’ Although these wonderful specks would be lost if held in the palm, anyone making the journey to Wollaton Hall to visit this remarkable exhibition can do just as Blake urged.
Dr. Willard Wigan MBE’s Miniature Masterpieces exhibition is on display at Wollaton Hall until the end of October 2023
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