Willard Wigan spends inordinate amounts of time in a small closet, hunched over, peering into a powerful microscope.
A month, six weeks later or longer, the end-result of his labor are incredible works of art so minute that they cannot be seen with the naked eye.
"It may take up to two months to finish one piece," said Wigan during a recent interview at the Parish Gallery in Georgetown. "I work at nighttime for the solitude and because there are no vibrations from vehicles. Like a Buddhist monk, I work between my heart beat."
The 54-year-old Wigan is regarded as "the eighth wonder of the world" for micro-sculptures that usually sit in the eye of a needle, on the hair of a fly or on the smallest eyelash he can find in his eye. He said he uses microscopic tools that include crushed pieces of diamonds, a polished down pearl drill and a chip needle.
Wigan, a Birmingham, England native of Jamaican parents, said he enters a meditative state that allows him to reduce hand tremors and sculpt his masterpieces between pulse beats.
"I do not enjoy creating this world but I enjoy finishing it," he said.
He regaled an appreciative crowd at the gallery during opening night at an event entitled, "Willard Wigan: The Half Century Collection - 50 years of Creating Microscopic Artwork."
"I think the exciting thing about the show is the sheer size and detail and energy, and the many obstacles," said Dianne Whitfield-Locke, a noted collector of African-American art. "It's exciting to know that he overcame obstacles to become a master artist and to be knighted by the queen."
Any success he enjoys, Wigan said, came from his mother Zeta who pushed him to excel while being his strongest supporter.
"Mom said, 'you've got to make small things. The smaller you make it, the bigger you'll become,'" the micro-sculptor recalled. "So I concentrated on carving small things. But whatever I made, mom said it was too big ... years passed on and it [the creations] got smaller and I got bigger."
"I also believe that the bigger the carving, the smaller the challenge."
"It's amazing, absolutely amazing," gushed Forestville, Md., resident Cindy Brewer. "I saw his other collection which was way more fabulous. These are some newer ones. This is the first time I've heard the whole story."
That story began when Wigan was five, that's when he said he became fascinated by ants. After a dog destroyed an anthill, he used broken shards of glass and razor blades to construct houses, furniture and carousels for the ants. Wigan admits to stealing a microscope from school and used that in his artistic quest. He received no formal training but his innate gifts led him to this career.
Cruel, racist teachers fueled his drive to excel. He said they humiliated him because he could not read or write. So he took to skipping school and focusing more on his art. He would learn later that he was dyslexic.
"They told me I would empty bins and wouldn't amount to anything," said Wigan. "But my mom and my neighbor told me I was good. I cut out figures into little shapes and put people onto the top of a toothpick."
"My mother said I'd do something good by being small. I wanted to be great, the micro-sculptor of the world, the Usain Bolt of micro-sculpture," said Wigan who Queen Elizabeth bestowed the Member of the British Empire title on in 2007 for services in art. "As the child of a minority, I knew I had to work just a little harder."
"I had to work a little harder because of my circumstances. My work had to defend me. Muhammad Ali said the punch you don't see is the one that knocks you out."
Wigan said many of the themes of his work are based on nursery rhymes and are manifested in Cinderella, Little Miss Muffett, as well as little boats, a pair of dancers doing the tango, a Harley- Davidson motorcycle, two children on a seesaw and President Barack Obama and his family. He said he is proud of the Coronation Crown he created in response to a request by Queen Elizabeth as a tribute to her Diamond Jubilee celebration.
Awestruck gallery patrons viewed the collection of Wigan's work through powerful Nikon microscopes that magnified each piece 400 times. Prices ranged from $22,000 to $40,000. Wigan's work is in great demand and collectors include Prince Charles, Sir Elton John, Mike Tyson and Simon Cowell.
Wigan said he continues to experiment and recently completed a church carved in a grain of sand. He has a number of projects on the horizon and he said he relishes the challenge to go smaller.
"You look at it without a microscope and there's nothing there," said Neil Hartbarger, who along with his wife Juanita has a growing African-American art collection. "I was here for his show three years ago. Words really fail me because he is beyond any superlative. No one else can do what he does."
Willard Wigan: The Half Century Collection will be on display at the Parish Gallery through January 2013. For further information, visit www.parishgallery.com or call 202-944-2310. The gallery is located at Canal Square 1054 31st Street in Northwest.