Art under the microscope

If you think a camel can’t fit through the eye of a needle, you haven’t seen Willard Wigan’s artwork. Of course, you won’t be able to see it without a microscope. (These days, I can barely see the eye of a needle, let alone anything in it. I understand now why just a few years ago, women I sewed with envied my ability to easily thread a needle.) With proper magnification, however, you will see that Wigan has placed not just one but nine miniature camels in the eye of a needle. (See slide 2 of this slideshow.)

My husband likes to paint small pewter figurines, and he purchased a visor equipped with both a magnifying lens and a light to aid him in his detailed work. To paint the eyes, he uses a paintbrush narrowed to a single strand, or the point of a pin. But even that would be impossibly large for the work Wigan does. He does use a hair to paint his creations, but it is hair taken from a dead housefly.

Wigan is a prime example of failure fueling success. A child who struggled with dyslexia and other learning disabilities and did very poorly in school, Wigan found solace in creating art on a tiny scale – so tiny his teachers could not see it and thus could not criticize it. Encouraged by his mother, he applied his unusual ability on a smaller and smaller scale. To this day he can barely read or write, but his one-of-a-kind artworks sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

I admire Wigan’s skill – both with his scalpel (unlike most artists working on a microscopic level, he does his work by hand) and in controlling his body. To avoid hand tremors, he has to work in a trance-like state and only make cuts in between heartbeats. He chose a difficult profession and applies himself to its demanding requirements, patiently working week after week to produce a single product.

I can’t muster as much enthusiasm for his works themselves, however. They are impressive for their uniqueness (see this page at snopes.com for more examples), and they are pretty enough to look at (if you have access to a good microscope), but I see limited value in art that cannot be seen by the naked eye. They are intended as visual art (each piece comes with a microscope), yet a gallery displaying his art looks more like a lab, as a visitor entering the gallery sees only microscopes on display.

If I had the money to purchase a unique work of art, I would want it to be one that I could see when I entered the room, and which visitors could also see. If the only way to view the art is by bending over a microscope, the art will spend most of its time unseen, and its value will be chiefly in knowing that one owns it. I know that simply “knowing that one owns it” is the motivation for many collectors (whether of visual art or other rare objects), but then it functions more as an object to be owned than a work of art to be seen.

Still, his work does demonstrate “that if one person can create the impossible, we all have the potential to transcend our own limiting beliefs about what we are capable of.” My younger son, while recognizing that his autism in some way makes him special (though I have mixed feelings about his citing it in a school assignment on “things I like about myself”), wonders sometimes what he can do that anyone else will value. I assure him that he has a great imagination, and that he has years ahead to find ways to use it that others will appreciate. He also is very interested in science, a field that often attracts people with autism spectrum disorders.

I would prefer, though, that if his future career involves a microscope, it is in a science lab rather than an art gallery.

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