When I first arrive at the Birmingham Contemporary Art Gallery, home to Dr Willard’s microscopic sculptures, I’m immediately taken in by the light and space. It’s a fitting home for his collection.
Albert and Sarah Wallace, who own the gallery were wonderful hosts and during my time interviewing Dr Willard, made everyone feel welcome. After a quick five-minute introduction, I’m encouraged to view the display before setting up for a more formal chat with the man behind the exhibit.
It was something to behold, my mind couldn’t quite comprehend what I was seeing through the microscope.
Dr Willard goes straight into how at the age of five; after his dog had destroyed an ant’s nest, he took it upon himself to build them tiny homes and villages. His tools were his dads razor blade and small pieces of wood, picking up leaves and grains of sand to make a worthy home.
His mother who saw his talents encouraged him to think smaller and think smaller he did.
School, Dyslexia and Autism
Dr Willard wasn’t officially diagnosed with Autism until he was 50 but he knew there was something different about him from a young age. He also admitted that the response he received from a young age when he would show his peers his art would be exclamations of wonder.
Yet, he would often run away from school and left without any qualifications to take him into adult life.
So, whilst he had received great accolades from his peers at a young age and started to believe in himself, he kept quiet how often he would spend creating miniature sculptures. Often telling himself, “I want to create something smaller than the last.”
Dr Willard admitted to throwing away a lot of his work in the earlier days as it wasn’t small enough, even with his first microscope, allowing for even smaller creations. “I had to compensate because that’s all I could do; I didn’t have anything else.”
It was at 29 years old, again with the encouragement of his mum, she told him to show the world the gift he was given. So, on his walk in Birmingham, he walked into a tool shop. Noticing a block of wood on display he told the owner he could turn it into a sculpture, which he was challenged to do.
After carving the head of Shakespeare from this material I became an artist in resident, as a buyer came forward. They bought it for £1,500, “I was happy, as it was my first commission. Yet the smaller artworks I had created were still hidden.”
“Shakespeare’s head brought with it some attention in the press and work where I set up a wood carving business with a gentleman called Graham Jones, who was also a wood carver.”
But it would be a carving commemorating a wedding where he would carve their names into a match that led him to finally bring out the artwork that would make him a world-renowned micro sculptor.
His miniature creations were garnering press attention and with it followed invites to the Big Breakfast Show and the BBC.
Going Smaller For An MBE
“They were starting to refer to me as Micro Angelo. On the Big Breakfast Show they asked how small I could go and I showcased the Statue of Liberty in the eye of a needle. They went crazy for the micro sculptures.”
An invitation to exhibit in Bath, which was titled ‘The Impossible Micro Work’ and opened by Lionel Blair was the beginning of his journey to commissioned work. There was a one-million-pound investment into him and his talent and within a few short years, this led to an invitation to Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE for services to art.
Unfortunately, his mother passed away round this time, just as the beginning of his journey to what she always believed he would become.
An auction of his work purchased by David Lloyd went for £92,000 and more private commissions added to his accolades were coming in. He was always beginning to exhibit his work all over the UK and across the world, “The world just opened up to me, realising how big these small sculptures were.”
“I was commissioned to make the world’s smallest sculpture of Father Christmas. They had the largest so my sculpture which I dubbed ‘Father Tichmas’ was produced and now resides in Portugal.
The Arts and Business
As a man with autism, he was invited to speak to schools across the country and for the Autism Society about his incredible journey.
“I felt like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, I’ve finally got a brain.” He laughs as he tells me. “I was invited to do a Ted Talk and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick to top it all.”
I ask Dr Willard about his art as a business, and he tells me “I have a management team so I can concentrate on the art. I don’t understand the business world so leave it to them”
After seeing the exhibit for myself it genuinely is “beyond comprehension” as Prince Charles once told him. The smallest artwork he has produced has been the ‘The Beginning’, which was the size of a human blood cell and placed within a carved section of his own beard stubble.
From wood carvings to commissions from The Queen, Dr Willard’s journey has been anything but microscopic.
His advice to others is that if you have a talent “You need determination and that whatever your mind can conceive you can achieve. If you have a skill don’t let anyone you can’t succeed with it.”
And as we wrap up, he tells me inspiration comes from daily life and that, “I miniaturise the world through the eye of a needle.”