I met Willard Wigan at the Autism Show earlier this year. I had heard him speak before on TedX and also saw his incredible show at Ripley’s Believe it or Not (that was a unique place, so sad it’s closed), but hearing him speak to autistic and non-autistic people about his experiences growing up in the West Midlands, and more pertinently his experiences at school, was both sobering and inspiring. He’s a really funny guy and in just a few short moments, you were in his private world where ants had feelings and it’s the most natural thing in the world to want to build them an ant-sized home…
But let’s start at the very beginning:
As a young boy growing up in the Wolverhampton, West Midlands, Willard Wigan found both reading and writing did not come naturally to him. Schools and teachers back then (early 1960s) were not aware of dyslexia, autism and learning difficulties, so Willard’s learning problems went undiagnosed. He was bullied by his classmates and told by his school teachers that he would amount to nothing and he would achieve nothing because he could not read or write. He was regularly used as an example to demonstrate what failure would look like. One teacher caused him to feel so much distress that it destroyed him academically. The trauma of this, and being labelled a failure, led to Willard withdrawing into himself and not speaking, as he believed that nothing he said mattered. “My body was at school, but my mind wasn’t, so I decided to take them both away.” Willard Wigan
“I escaped the ridicule of school and found sanctuary in the shed at the bottom of the garden; my much-loved dog Maxie began digging holes, revealing an ants’ nest. It was during this time of self-imposed isolation that I started to make little homes for the ants because I worried the ants where homeless, so I made apartments, tiny shoes and hats. It was a fantasy world I escaped to, where my dyslexia didn’t hold me back and where no one could criticise me. I began to carve and sculpt this world, one that could not be seen by others. I even made tiny sculptures of my teachers because they made me feel small, so I wanted to make them look small! From the age of five, I wanted to show the world that nothing did exist and nothing does matter.”
Unknown to Willard it’s at this time his micro-sculpting career had just begun.
Willard on TedTalks (version with transcripts)
One day, Willard decided to bunk off school and when his mum came home and saw his making tiny structures for the ants she was amazed and not too cross!
As many parents of children with the gifts, challenges and talents of Dyslexia and autism spectrum condition, can testify, most of the struggles with education system relates to people’s treatment of children with difference, (including some teachers unfortunately), rather the disability itself. Mrs. Willard’s response was this: “Throw a grain of sand into the sea and create a tidal wave of success, show the world just how big your work is, even though you can’t see it.’ Zeta motivated Willard to keep sculpting smaller and smaller and she became the biggest inspiration in his life. The day Willard bunked off school, was the day his changed his life forever. Anxiously waiting to see what his mum was going to do about him not being at school when she discovered that he was not only at home, but creating an intricate house for the ants in the back garden, she was overwhelmed in amazement. Her kind and supportive words that day encouraged him to carry on sculpting smaller pieces, it was a transitional moment in his life that he remembers clearly.
Whenever Willard created a new piece after that, and showed his mum she would tell him his work wasn’t small enough. “The smaller your work, the bigger your name will become”, she said. Willard went smaller and carved a sculpture of a birdcage including the bars and the bird on the end of a toothpick, when he showed it to his mum, she just looked at it and said in her Jamaican accent: “Too big man!” This inspired Willard to go even smaller, until now he sculpts beautiful and detailed works of micro-art, smaller than a full stop in a newspaper! In July 2007, he was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to art, which was presented to him by HRH, Charles, Prince of Wales. Not bad for a boy with undiagnosed dyslexia and autism as a child, who sculpted to find peace and solace in world that didn’t really understand him. He is now creating art of such minute proportions, they cannot be seen with the naked eye!
How does he do it?
This is the part of his speech that had me hanging on the edge of my seat… when working with such minuscule materials, a spec of dust, a wisp of hair (yes, really!) he needs to be careful not to sneeze or cough. So he’s developed a system of intense and deep concentration, when he works, so much so, that he is able to lower his heart rate and craft his sculptures between each heart beat. I mean, these type of steady hands usually belong to brain and micro-surgeons!
Willard is a true champion for disability rights: Willard Wigan MBE is now an ambassador for Sign Connect UK. Sign Connect UK have developed an App 🤳 that aims to help make everyday life more accessible for the Deaf, Blind, Autistic & Dyslexic people. You can find out more about the App here: http://www.signconnectuk.com or on social pages.
So what do we learn from Willard’s amazing journey?
- If your child is unhappy about going to school, allow them some space and time to work out what the issue is. Getting back to school may work for some, but not others.
- If your child has strange or unusual habits, (within reason) encourage them, this is their self-expression, their stress release, their way of making sense of a senseless world.
- His mother was his inspiration. Her reaction to him bunking off school was restrained. A lot of Jamaican parents of that generation were extremely rules focused, and their kids were reprimanded if they appeared to be stepping out of line. Let’s here is for the mothers, (fathers, carers, aunties) whoever they are, wherever they’re at. The ones who encourage children who are different to be themselves, find themselves. We need you.
Check out Willard’s work on Instagram..
#willardwiganmbe #microsculpture #dsylexia #autism
Words: Suzy Rowland & Willard Wigan MBE.