And when you’re painting a Tyson Fury sculpt that fits on a nailhead, precision is pretty important.
“It’s bigger than what I normally do,” Willard says. This remarkable work of art, titled Hard as Nails, is about twice the height of a matchstick head and is slightly thinner. It captures the boxing world champion down to the words “Gipsy King” on his tiny shorts, in letters so small you need a microscope to read them. Or at least a specialized smartphone.
Willard is a wanted man right now. Her tiny sculptures are the go-to gift for the rich and famous. Simon Cowell has one from Frank Sinatra. Controversial tycoon Sir Philip Green reportedly paid £60,000 for one with Kate Moss. In 2007, health club tycoon David Lloyd reportedly paid £11.2million for 70 of his sculptures.
He is set to have a starring role in an eight-part TV series for Channel Four, and an exhibition if his work at the Birmingham Contemporary Art Gallery runs until Friday. If that’s not enough, his rags-to-riches life story is also being turned into a new drama that will be serialized on Netflix.
Not bad for a boy whose teacher told him he “had a brain the size of a pea”, and would never achieve anything.
“I’m the Muhammad Ali of microscopic art,” says Willard, who grew up on the Ashmore Park estate in Wolverhampton.
“The microsurgeons saw my work, they said ‘we can’t do that, our machines can’t do that’,” he says.
Willard is secretive about what he’s working on right now, but promises it will be something special.
“I have something coming up that’s going to surprise a lot of people,” he says. And when Willard says it’s going to be a surprise, you can prepare to be surprised.
Now 64, Willard is a multi-millionaire, with a lifestyle his former teachers can only dream of.
He was appointed MBE in 2007 after the Queen asked him to make a small sculpture of the crown she wore for her coronation.
And he will also be one of two resident experts in the upcoming Channel 4 series The Great Big Tiny Design Challenge, which will see design experts invited to carry out a Grand Designs-style renovation – of a dollhouse.
But although he was able to enjoy all the outward signs of success, the cruel humiliation he suffered as a child is still relevant today.
“One of the teachers was dragging me around the school, bringing me in front of all the classes and telling them ‘this is what failure looks like’,” he bristles.
“They told me I would never achieve anything, but I achieved more than anyone else who went to this school.”
For Willard, his school days were a difficult and lonely time. Later in his life he was diagnosed with autism and dyslexia. But in the 1960s, autism was barely understood by the nation’s leading school psychologists, let alone primary school teachers in suburban Wolverhampton. Instead of seeing Willard as a flawed but gifted genius, he was seen as a problem, a lost cause, an example to others of what happens if you don’t comply.
But in this isolation, Willard’s creative side flourished. As he sat alone, ridiculed by his classmates and teachers, his imagination began to work overtime.
“I started noticing things that everyone else didn’t know, like dust particles and red mites crawling on the sidewalk,” he says.
“At home, when the heating pipes made noise, I imagined that there was a little person jumping with a rope. The fantasy world of little things has become my escape.
Willard’s father was a foundry worker and there was not much money in the family home.
“We didn’t have money to buy toys, so I made my own,” he says.
“My first creation was a house for ants, when I was five years old. I took splinters of wood and fashioned a rough bungalow and some small furniture. Then I invited the ant with honey and soon I was the owner of a colony.
Willard left school at 15 and followed his father into the foundry, but after buying a second-hand microscope for £4 he started making tiny wooden sculptures.
His mother, who he says was a huge influence on his life, quickly spotted the potential in his work and encouraged him to make his work smaller and smaller.
“The smaller your job, the bigger your name,” she used to say,” he remembers fondly. “She made me believe in myself and I embarked on a quest to make smaller and smaller pieces.”
He placed his tiny sculptures on the end of cocktail skewers and displayed them in a window, and people began to take an interest in them. “People saw my work and interest growing and I was invited to exhibit at a gallery in Bath.”
Currently, Willard is working on a sculpture to commemorate the Commonwealth Games – he can’t reveal much at his stadium – and some of his recent works make his Tyson Fury look like a giant. With carvings measuring 0.0002 inches or 0.005 mm, the metric vs. imperial debate seems somewhat redundant – scale is simply impossible to imagine, whichever system you prefer.
He was recently commissioned to make a house that sits inside the eye of a needle, and the detail extends to the letterbox and verandah to the side. He produced the world’s smallest super yacht – a Sunseeker to be precise – that fits in the eye of a needle.
Another captures musician Johanna Martzy playing the violin.
The Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota is famous for its expansive sculpture of US Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, but Willard’s version is barely larger than a speck of dust.
The biblical metaphor of a camel going through the eye of a needle is depicted in another sculpture, which actually depicts nine of the beasts in microscopic form.
“I made one to represent the NHS, a nurse who struggled with Covid at the end of hypodermia, I did this as a symbol of strength,” he says.
Working on such a small scale does not make life easy. Willard says each piece takes five to eight weeks, working up to 18 hours a day.
He says: “I lock myself up and go into a meditative trance state where I slow down my nervous system and work between heartbeats because the slightest tremor can destroy a track. It drives me crazy.
“Sometimes I motivate myself by entering a fantasy world where I imagine I’m operating on a tiny person to save their life.”
But the biggest bugbear is the risk of destroying something so small and fragile after finishing it.
But the worst part is when something goes wrong after the play is over. There was more than one occasion where he got too close and actually inhaled his own carvings.
“Eight weeks of work in my nostril!”
Such accidents can also turn out to be very costly, since his labor is not cheap. His Mount Rushmore is up for sale at £107,000. His recreation of Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting Girl With A Pearl Earring, slightly smaller than a match head, costs £147,000. While the world’s smallest super yacht is actually cheaper than the real one at £160,000, it’s still a lot of money for something the naked eye can’t even see.
But its piece de resistance is a golden dragon, which has been created in such minute detail that it’s hard to understand.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, I almost needed advice after that because of the details, it drove me crazy,” he says. And while the value of gold is normally assessed by its weight, that logic goes out of the window when it comes to this work of art. Ordinarily, the scrap value of such a tiny gold coin would be negligible, but this gold coin is far from ordinary – and on sale for a whopping £1million.
It is suspected that the people who wrote off Willard will not make any offers.
*Willard Wigan has launched a partnership with smartphone maker Oppo, which has developed the only phone with a camera capable of magnifying its sculptures so that they are visible.