Willard Wigan never meant for his art to become a business.
In fact, he never really set out to be an artist; the vocation found him as he was hiding from the real world at 5 years old.
Now 53, Mr. Wigan is renowned for his “micro-sculptures,” ultra-miniature works in a rare genre he helped create. He makes the minutest of statuettes, fitting them in a needle’s eye or fixing them atop a pin head. He carves figures into matchsticks and puts lipstick and clothes on dead houseflies. In short, he takes life-size ideas and characters and shrinks them to a “molecular level.”
These uniquely small works, a sampling of which is currently on display at the Atlanta Art Gallery in Buckhead, fetch high-profile buyers at big prices. During an interview in February, Mr. Wigan said he was working on a commissioned sculpture that would bring seven-foot-tall basketball star Shaquille O’Neal down to nano size.
England’s Prince Charles, musician Elton John, boxer Mike Tyson and “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell all own pieces of Mr. Wigan’s work, which range in price from $35,000 to upwards of $100,000. David Lloyd, the former British tennis player, owns 72 pieces, almost half of Mr. Wigan’s total output of about 200.
Though his work has made him a millionaire, Mr. Wigan doesn’t do it for the money.
“If I wasn’t going to get paid for it, I’d still do it,” he said. “It’s like telling someone who plays basketball they won’t get paid. They’ll still do it. You do what you love.”
What has become a passion began as a defense mechanism. Mr. Wigan suffers from dyslexia, which made school life a “nightmare” for a boy born to Jamaican parents in Birmingham, England.
Insensitive to his learning disability, a teacher named Mrs. Adams (he made it a point to mention her name) paraded him around the school campus as the poster-child for academic failure.
“She used to make it a hobby to humiliate me. She said something so humiliating that it sticks in my mind and it will be here always. She said, ‘The word failure was invented because of you,'” Mr. Wigan said.
When he was supposed to be at school, Mr. Wigan would sometimes hide in the shed in his backyard. One day, as he watched ants moving in and out their holes, he decided they needed a better place to live.
“I saw an ant carrying a blade of grass, and that’s when I thought, ‘Wow, he’s trying to build a house, so I’m going to help him,'” Mr. Wigan said.
Using remnants of his dad’s discarded razor blades, 5-year-old Willard began slicing splinters of wood into the raw materials for tiny log cabins with windows made from transparent plastic candy wrappers.
Little ladders, furniture, merry-go-rounds, rocking horses and seesaws followed, and Mr. Wigan’s mother began to take interest in his work. She became the biggest source of encouragement on the self-taught artist’s quest to overcome the teacher’s negative influence.
“It’s almost wanting to tell people how big nothing can be because she made me feel like nothing. My art work has defended me to the degree now to where the doors have completely opened,” Mr. Wigan said. “It’s almost like it’s an atom bomb, these small, little sculptures have created this colossal explosion of excitement into the world.”
Atlantans can see Mr. Wigan’s works at the Atlanta Art Gallery until March 27. Depictions include President Obama and family celebrating his election victory on a needle’s eye, Charlie Chaplin dancing on the tip of an eyelash and the Titanic floating on a piece of crystal the size of a grain of sand, among many others.
For perspective, the works are displayed in plastic globes equipped with futuristic-looking microscopes. Peering around the sides of the globes, it’s hard to glimpse the sculptures. Seeing is easier in the microscope, but believing is still tough.
“There’s a mysticism when people see my work,” Mr. Wigan told GlobalAtlanta. “It almost becomes an unbelievable thing for them to actually see.”
The work of a micro Michelangelo requires loads of patience, Mr. Wigan said. It can take months to produce a single sculpture, and he sometimes works for 18 hours at a time sitting upright like a zen master hovered over a microscope at his home.
“I have to work between my heartbeat because my work has gotten so small I’ve got to be almost a dead man working,” he said. “I have to concentrate because I’m working on a molecular level.”
Mr. Wigan calls his steady hands and surgical precision a God-given gift, one he has been cultivating over the past 48 years.
His tools are varied, from high-tech instruments to natural fibers. Chisels of choice include a shard of diamond glued to the end of a needle and a scalpel specially designed by a British firm that makes surgical equipment. He scrapes away at a many media, the most common of which is a piece of nylon carpet fabric. To add color, Mr. Wigan uses hairs from a fly as a paintbrush.
The work is so small that Mr. Wigan has inhaled one of his sculptures.
“I’ve actually breathed and then my own work’s gone,” he said.
James Lawer, Mr. Wigan’s manager, said Mr. Wigan’s narrow niche gives his work broad credibility and appeal. The affluent show status by owning something that no one else can duplicate. Mr. Wigan’s work isn’t like a Rembrandt or a Picasso, of which people can own copies or prints.
“Who’s going to copy this?” Mr. Lawer said in Atlanta, adding that the economic downturn has had little effect on Mr. Wigan’s ability to sell his work. “They say there’s no depression among the rich.”
Mr. Wigan has been invited to show his work in France, Germany and Hong Kong. About 20 pieces are on display in Liverpool, England. The current U.S. tour is the first exhibition outside the U.K., hitting cities like Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Washington.
Bill Dixon, director of the Atlanta Art Gallery, said he saw Mr. Wigan’s work in Wall Street Journal article in September and was drawn to it.
“Nobody’s showing anything like this,” Mr. Dixon said.
It’s a departure for his gallery, which focuses on late 19th and early 20th century paintings and sculptures. Mr. Dixon hoped the $5 price tag for the exhibition would bring in school groups, for which Mr. Wigan has become an inspiration.
“God gave me this gift. He threw it to me and I caught it and ran with it, but at the same time I’m showing it to the world; I’m showing it what his powers are capable of doing,” Mr. Wigan said.
Like any artist, though, Mr. Wigan keeps pushing for bigger and better – or in his case, smaller and better – things.
“I’m still not satisfied; my work’s too big,” he said.