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Birmingham micro sculptor Willard Wigan hopes to create micro Madame Tussauds inside Library of Birmingham

The artist, whose exhibition Through The Eye of a Needle opens at the Library of Birmingham, hopes to do more to help the troubled building

Micro-sculptor Willard Wigan

Having only opened 16 month ago, the Library of Birmingham is being placed into special, emergency measures.

Opening hours are being slashed from 73 per week to 40 – and 100 of the showpiece centre’s 188 staff are being axed.

But one man is hoping to do his bit to help to save it from oblivion.

And he cannot even read.

As a young school pupil, Willard Wigan suffered.

Struggling to cope with lessons because of undiagnosed autism /Asperger’s syndrome, he was regularly paraded around his Wolverhampton school as an example of what would happen to others if they didn’t listen to his teacher.

The shock shut him down and for some five years, the already illiterate Willard was left barely able to speak.

By one of those bizarre quirks of fate, the experience was the making of him.

Today, he’s 57 and something of a free spirit who admits to being a millionaire.

Home is a spartan canal-side home in Birmingham city centre where he has far more remote controls for drones and model helicopters than traditional furnishings.

Willard Wigan working at home in his studio
 

Paraphrasing the words of Muhammad Ali – one of the key figures who inspired him through his darkest days and whom he shadow boxed in Birmingham in the early 1980s – he lays claim to being The Greatest in his micro-artist field.

Usually positioned inside the eye of a needle to provide a sense of scale, Willard’s sculptures are visible only through powerful microscopes, like the one housing his recent interpretation of The Last Supper.

His favourite materials are Kevlar (used to make bullet-proof jackets) and gold. Ball bearings and a slide are used to crush his oil paints to molecule size.

 

In Gallery 3 of the Library of Birmingham, an exhibition called Through The Eye of a Needle (admission £3) will enable visitors to explore his work from January 11 to 25.

Having become a patron of the Library of Birmingham Trust, he now hopes to do even more to help it.

“I want to create a permanent (paid for) exhibition there of 20 pieces,” says Willard.

“It would be like a micro Madame Tussauds and will blow people’s minds.

“I’m currently making a version of the Matthew Boulton golden statue in Broad Street and want to feature others who had made a big difference to the world, from Einstein to Dickens.

“It will contain sculptures of some of the world’s most famous people like Madonna who would want to come to see themselves there.”

Willard used to make little houses as a boy.

Watching a dog destroy an ants nest and imagining they were homeless was a pivotal moment.

“I remember my mum saying to me: ‘You will get bigger by making things smaller’.

“That message is still in my head today as The Greatest Micro-artist Who Ever Lived. That’s a fact.”

It’s some boast, but there’s a framed certificate on his wall from the Guinness Book of Records to prove his words.

According to Guinness the smallest hand-made sculpture is of a motorbike and is entitled Golden Journey.

“The sculpture – which sits in a hollowed-out section of a single hair of beard stubble – is 0.1603 mm long and was created out of gold by artist Willard Wigan MBE (UK). Verified in Birmingham (UK) on June 19, 2013.”

It’s a measure of Willard’s difficulty in interpreting the world around him in a conventional sense that he’s the first person I’ve met who has taken five minutes to work out how many siblings he has (there are seven, including father’s extra) and where he is in the order of things (fifth).

He has a 10-year-old daughter he sees occasionally – “It’s one of those things” – and a girlfriend.

While his father was a foundry worker who was “good looking but aggressive”, he frequently quotes the wise words of his mother, “a peace worker who could write”.

He has also relied on other bright stars to guide him through life’s ups and downs.

As well as Ali, Willard’s own heroes include Michelangelo, Einstein, Bruce Lee and, from the world of music, Steve Wonder, Karen Carpenter and Burt Bacharach.

From the modern era, he chooses magician Dynamo for his “brilliance” and mixed martial arts cage fighters like Cain Valesquez and Jon ‘Bones’ Jones for the sense of respect they show in “the most disciplined sport in the world”.

“I have got the dexterity, but not the quickness,” says Willard of his unfulfilled wish to practice the noble art of boxing.

“My hands are super stable, though... I could be an alien!”

To work, he demands the kind of pure silence you are only likely to find at night. As we talk, the occasional hammering in a neighbouring apartment would have put him right off for the day.

For relaxation, though, he loves to hear good tunes well sung.

“I think the 70s had the best music of all time,” adds Willard. “And it was all drawn from the 50s and 60s. Look at The Beatles... who is going to beat them?

Willard’s journey matches the space race... in that the further he has travelled, the smaller his craft has become to the human eye.

Lift off came half a century ago in about 1962 when he first turned to “micro stuff” for salvation.

Sylva (Hands) by Willard Wigan, which is to go on display at the Library of Birmingham
 

For the most part, it has freed his brain but, every now and then, he just stops in his own tracks, tries really hard to think, and then apologises.

“Sorry,” he’ll say. “It’s my autism coming through...”

Recovering his train of thought again, Willard says: “My dexterity has improved because of my (mental) limitations.

“They were an obstacle for me to become successful – but I used that to become great.

“I had to become great. Being good wasn’t enough.

“If I made something small, it wasn’t small enough.

“I went to Russell Close School in Wolverhampton where my teacher, Mrs Adams, used me as an example of failure.

“I was seen as illiterate and thick and exhibited as a failure.

“She took me on a grand tour of the school and told the other pupils: ‘If you don’t listen to me, you will be like Willard’.

“I lost my speech and I thought there was no need to speak.

“I ran away from school a few times and couldn’t speak I was so messed up.

“My speech came back when I was about ten, but it didn’t matter what I said – nobody would listen to me.

“But I became a good listener, with a strong personality.

“I’ve always had confidence in my art and sometimes being traumatised comes back so I don’t underestimate anything or people.

“My art proves that just because you can’t see something (with your naked eye) doesn’t mean that it’s not there.

“I wanted to show how big nothing has become and how big you can become with nothing.

“My teacher has done me a favour because when you are called by someone else ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’ it makes you understand more.”

One of these things which helped him was that he drew a small circle on a wall and kept throwing a small pebble at it.

“After about five weeks, a girl told me I was good at it,” Willard smiles.

“If somebody had given me darts, I could have been the world’s greatest darts player.

“When I was presented with the MBE by Prince Charles, he said to me: ‘You deserve this’.

“He then shook my hand longer than anybody else in the queue and I was absolutely blown away.”

Barack Obama and his family by artist Willard Wigan
 

Not for the first time, Willard gets up from his chair. He returns to proudly show me a folder containing three letters from the Queen.

Like his Wolverhampton-born friend Arron Bird, who works out of the Jewellery Quarter as the graffiti artist Temper, Willard has put a difficult childhood behind him to become the best in his field.

“Temper is the best graffiti artist of his kind in the world,” says Willard.

“I’ve been to the US and know there is nobody there like him.

“Even Banksy can’t touch him in terms of the kind of art he does.

“Birmingham doesn’t realise how great Temper is. It takes an artist to know one and I can pick up on the finer details.

“The one who stands out from around the world, as a portrait painter with a spray can, is Temper.

“It’s like trying to compare squash and table tennis, they are both different.

“LA has a certain reputation, but when I went there I couldn’t believe how polite and helpful people were.

“And in the US, they want you to be successful so The Lab School tries to find out what you are good at.

“People who don’t have any direction need encouragement.”

In an interview last April Arron Bird told me that “nobody has ever seen the real Temper” – the sleepless alter ego he becomes when working.

Read the interview with Temper here

Willard understands.

“When I’m working, it takes so much out of me,” he says.

“I’ve only done about 300 pieces in my whole life – each one can now take three months.

“So while I enjoy doing it, I really enjoy finishing it.”

While his works’ private owners include Mike Tyson, Sir Elton John and Simon Cowell, given that his next public exhibition is in the Library of Birmingham, what does he make of the council suddenly cutting its staff and hours back so excessively and so soon after opening?

Willard Wigan's micro-sculpture of Nelson Mandela inside the eye of a needle
 

“I think it’s quite sad to know that this has happened to such a beautiful place,” says Willard.

“Books can educate people. It’s like I can’t drive a Bugatti, but I can sit in one.

“I can see what other people should have for their education.

“I hope my journey is enough for people to be inspired by it.

“It’s not meant as a criticism, but the council won’t shout and promote how great the city is like Manchester, Edinburgh and Leeds do.

“I am not the only talented person here but I am a Brummie contributing to Birmingham, a city that’s like a big diamond that needs polishing.

“I am doing my part by becoming a patron of the Library. I want to inspire kids to let them know they can overcome adversity.

“I am testimony that with no education, no ability to read or to be able to spell properly, that you can still be successful.

“People need to be able to find the skills they didn’t know they had.

“My mum used to say: ‘There’s nothing wrong with dying, but there’s something wrong if you are not living while you are alive.

“I might not be able to read, but I’ve learned to live while I am alive.”

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