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More than meets the eye

They say it's not the story that intrigues us so much as the storyteller.

Willard Wigan, 52, a famous micro-sculptor, is telling his story to an audience at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md., explaining how he began creating art so tiny that it fits in the eyes of needles.

It began, he says, with his teacher in a classroom in England, when Wigan was 5 years old. The teacher holds her nose high in the air and speaks with the crispness of the king's English:

"Where is the little colored boy today? Yes, of course, there you are. Come here."

The boy wants to vanish. Instead he follows the teacher's instruction and goes to the front of the class. The teacher gives him a piece of chalk and tells him to write, but he cannot because he has dyslexia, a learning disability that his school in England in the 1960s had not recognized.

The teacher spins the little boy to face his classmates and announces: "Willard is an example of failure."

The boy wants to become smaller before his classmates, retreating within himself until they can no longer see him.

"Nothing," the teacher announces in a tinny voice. "Nothing is what this boy will become."

The boy hates school. And absconds. That's the word he uses. "I absconded."

His mother finds him hiding in the shed behind his home in Birmingham, where he was the middle child of five children.

"What are you doing here?" his mother asks in her strong Jamaican accent, not yet diminished by her life in England.

Her son, who is only 5, can't find the words to articulate his humiliation at school. He tells her he doesn't like school. She tells him he must go to school. He says he doesn't want to go to school. She tells him, if he doesn't go to school, she will drag him. She leaves him in the shed, staring at the ground.

Before him crawls a trail of ants.

"I started to believe ants needed a place to live. I decided to make an apartment building and furniture for them, and a carousel out of splinters of wood."

He put the edifice of splinters on a piece of cardboard with a dab of honey and the ants sought it out.

"As a kid I lived in a fantasy world. I used to believe ants could talk. Not once did they say thank you."

He showed his work to his mother, who worked in a lock factory, and she told him to take it smaller. Each time he came to her, his mother would say: "Take it smaller. I can still see it," Wigan recalls. "She said your name will get bigger as your work gets smaller."

His father, a steelworker, "was a typical Jamaican man. If you asked him for a toy, he would give you cotton string and a wheel. If you did anything wrong, he would show you the switch."

Wigan is leaning on a lectern in an art gallery at the community college. He is uncomfortable. Admittedly shy. He is wearing a black suit, lavender shirt opened at the color. A diamond in his ear. He looks like one of those movie stars whose name you can't quite remember. A girl in the back whispers, "He has a British accent."

Tiny art is ancient, painted on grains of sand, carved into kernels of rice. Nanotechnology art, as Wigan's art has been called, is even smaller. (Nano means one-billionth of a part.) Nano art is about materials of dimensions so small they are often invisible to the naked eye.

Wigan's art comes with his story, which he has told often to audiences who initially find it hard to believe what they see. It is incomprehensible to some that art so tiny was made by hands and not a machine.

Even as seen through the lens of a microscope, the work can appear impossible. How did Wigan make the Statue of Liberty from a fleck of gold? Sculpt the scene from the Mad Hatter's tea party sitting in a needle? Sculpt five cast members from "Star Wars"?

There is the Obama family waving on election night — all standing tiny in the eye of an ordinary sewing needle. As seen through the lens, the needle itself looks huge and rugged, almost as though it were a hollowed-out mountain.

His art is constructed of fibers from his shirt or from a carpet, he says. He chisels with chips of diamonds.

"The diamonds are like little bee stingers when I smash them. I find the sharpest one and I gradually cut away at the fibers to get the shape. If it doesn't look like what I am trying to create, I turn it into somebody else."

He says he paints with the hair of a dead fly. He steadies his body, slows his pulse and works between heartbeats. He says he has trained himself to slip into a meditative state and often wears only underwear when working in a small room in his studio in England. He works only at night, to avoid traffic vibrations.

He has trained himself to feel the pulse in his fingers. "I can feel it jerking," he says, extending a finger.

Wigan says he must be careful not to breathe too deeply. A wrong move can mean destruction.

"Once, I inhaled Alice in Wonderland."

His work is a glass menagerie of fragile things. It gives the impression of otherworldliness, an attempt to escape a reality. And yet if you look closely, the tiny figures reveal a more penetrating expression of the way things would look if you were observing from a great distance, as though you were hovering above, godlike, looking down on little creatures.

Art critics on the whole do not seem to know what to make of Wigan's work, says Jeffry Cudlin, a curator, art critic and the director of exhibitions for the Arlington (Va.) Arts Center. Cudlin says when he was researching Wigan, he found no formal critiques of Wigan's work.

"There seems to be nothing about the quality of what he does other than to say, 'Holy cow! This guy is making pieces that fit on the head of a pin,' " Cudlin says. "There is no attempt to talk about it other than as a phenomenon, an unlikely thing brought into the world."

"Here you have work that can only be seen removed, through magnification," Cudlin adds. "There is some layer of distance between you and the thing you are seeing. Here is art that only the creator is seeing firsthand. Everybody else has to see it through a medium. It is almost unavailable for critique because you can't see it with the naked eye."

Still, Wigan's micro-sculptures have a deep-pocketed following. In May 2007, British tycoon David Lloyd bought 70 pieces of Wigan's collection for about $22 million. Prince Charles owns one of his sculptures, as do Elton John and the Marquess of Bath.

The queen of England has given him an award and praise, and there is a documentary being made about him by German filmmakers. Scientists everywhere are intrigued. Perhaps, they say, Wigan's method could help in surgeries.

Wigan's view of his art is loftier. It is a defense of small things, he says. "It is showing people what they can overcome."

"I heard someone say that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven," he says. "I decided to sculpt camels in a needle."

Someone asks whether he ever heard from his teacher, the one who told him he would be nothing. He says he hasn't, but he now credits her.

"That teacher made it bad for me. I will have to thank her. She was a cruel woman. I was told I would become nothing. Now I am showing people how big nothing is."

More online: www.willard-wigan.com