Micro-Sculptures Fit In The Eye Of A Needle

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How many miniature figures of the Obama family can fit in the eye of a needle? All of them. They were created by micro-sculptor Willard Wigan. Wigan speaks with host Liane Hansen about his small world.

LIANE HANSEN, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. Artist Willard Wigan knows that all too well. He makes sculptures so small, that they're barely visible to the naked eye. His art has to be viewed through a microscope - that's why he calls himself a micro-sculptor. Willard Wigan has put Elvis Presley on the head of a pin. He's perched Marilyn Monroe on top of a diamond. And this year he squeezed the Obama family into the eye of a sewing needle.

Willard Wigan joins us from NPR West. Welcome to the program.

WILLARD WIGAN: Thank you. I feel very honored to be here. Thank you.

HANSEN: So, just how big or - I guess I should say more precisely - how small is a micro-sculpture?

WIGAN: To give you an idea, we call it a full stop in England, you call it a period stop at the end of the sentence in a newspaper. Some of my sculptures, I could fit probably four, five images onto the period stop.

HANSEN: Wow. Do you work with a microscope?

WIGAN: Yeah. My work takes an intensive level of concentration 'cause I have to slow down my nervous system. I have to work between my heartbeat. Even the pulse in your finger can actually cause a little problem. So I have to sort of time it so I have one-and-a-half seconds to move between the beat. It does send me insane, I must admit, doing it, but I know that the impact that it has is colossal in it.

HANSEN: Yeah. Typically, how long does it take to complete a micro-sculpture?

WIGAN: Some can take from five to two months, three months. It depends, you know, it depends on how I feel. And sometimes I have little accidents where I can actually inhale some of my own work.

HANSEN: That happened to you, didn't it?

WIGAN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WIGAN: I was making a sculpture, Alice in Wonderland, you know, the Mad Hatter himself and Alice, and they were all sitting around a table. So, Alice was the last one I wanted to sit down into the chair. When I do my sculptures, I have to lift them with an eyelash. So I (unintelligible) pull out one of the finest eyelashes out of my eye and attach it to a needle. So, as I was lifting very, very gently, and as I was doing that, my mobile phone went off. And, you know, when you take a sigh, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGHING)

WIGAN: ...and then I noticed that it had gone. Which I knew I'd inhaled her. So I didn't feel happy about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HANSEN: No.

WIGAN: Because it was one of the best pieces I've done. But I actually managed to complete it. So the second one I'd done was even better. So I had to just replace Alice.

HANSEN: How long did it take to complete the Obama family micro-sculpture?

WIGAN: That took me about seven to eight weeks. I knew that he was going to become president, so I decided I wanted to create a bit of history, you know, a small bit of history in the eye of a needle.

HANSEN: Was that the first micro-sculpture you did with more than one real person?

WIGAN: No. I've done Andrew VIII and his six wives, you know, I've done the "Wizard of Oz" with Dorothy - Judy Garland and all in the eye of a needle perfectly sculptured. Most people, when they hear of my work, they don't realize just how detailed it is. I've had a lot of scientists and professors, all types of people, come to see my work, and they can't explain it.

They say, well, it's impossible for one to be able to make something on this molecular level. How can this be done? It's something that I've dedicated myself to. When I was a child I was obsessed with ants. And when I was a child I used to abscond from school, 'cause academically I wasn't very good. So I used to - my mother used to take to me to school and I used to run off and hide in the shed at the back of the garden.

And during the summer months, I came out and sat down and had a look at - I was looking down at the ground and I saw some little ants running around. And my mind went into a little fantasy world 'cause I kept thinking the queen ant has abandoned them and they have nowhere to live. So I started to make little apartments for the ants.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WIGAN: And the ants came around to play, but they never paid me any rent for the apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WIGAN: So, just a little bit disappointed with that. And they said to me, thank you, Willard, thank you, thank you very much. But here the ants bite you.

HANSEN: Is there anything that you wanted to do and you tried to do, but you couldn't?

WIGAN: I've never actually failed, because when I work, I put a challenge to myself. I see myself as - it's like a surgeon. I have to save the person's life. If I'm making a sculpture, I say to myself, if I don't do it, the person that I'm operating on is going to die, so I have to do it. I never really fail. If I fail, I come back again. And that's how I always do it.

It's punishing work, but the end result is then what I enjoy. I never enjoy actually doing them because there's always something that you're going to meet a mistake somewhere. But, you know, I look at the mistake as one step to success.

HANSEN: Willard Wigan joined us from NPR West. He's touring the United States until November. And to see images of Wigan's work and to find out where you can see it in person, go to NPR.org/Soapbox.

Willard, thank you very much.

WIGAN: Oh, thank you, thank you. I have a lot of patience.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WIGAN: And it's been a pleasure talking to you.

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