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Interview - Anna-Wili Highfield

Creative People

18th February, 2011
Lucy Feagins
Friday 18th February 2011

White Bellied Sea Eagle, 2010, by paper and mixed media artist Anna-Wili Highfield.

Sculptures made by Anna-Wili for Anthropologie in the US, collaborating with Australian stylist Sibella Court.

Sculptures by Anna-Wili Highfield, clockwise from top left - Grass Parrot, 2010. Owl perched, 2010.  White Winged Wren, 2010. Willie Wagtail, 2010.

Black Angus, 2009.

I am SURE  you have probably seen the exquisite work of Sydney-based artist Anna-Wili Highfield?!  I know I've spotted her stunning paper sculptures in print more than once before, so it's super exciting today to learn a little more about her creative process and working life.  For instance, I didn't realise until this week that Anna was just 30 years old, and is Mum to one little girl with another baby on the way!  All whilst maintaining a prolific arts practice - impressive! (and exhausting!).

I was interested also to learn that Anna-Wili started her career as a scenic artist for Opera Australia.! When you think about it, I guess it's not really too much of a stretch to see how working at the Opera has informed what Anna-Wili is doing now - handcrafting life-like three-dimensional forms from very basic materials,  and breathing real life and character into these delicate paper sculptures.   Anna Wili's work is now highly collectible and can be commissioned directly... she's been asked to collaborate with some very high profile brand in recent years (Anthropoligie, Hermes), and I've no doubt we'll be seeing a lot more of this young artist in the years ahead!

If you love Anna-Wili's work you'll be SUPER excited to learn that we have roped her in for more than just an interview - she'll be on the Guest Blog all next week too... SO EXCITING! stay tuned!

Tell us a little about your background - what path led you to what you’re doing now?

I studied painting at the National Art School and then became a scenic artist for Opera Australia. I wasn’t very prolific in art school, I felt weighed down by history, theory and the practices of the greats, I wondered how I could contribute to this. The Opera was different - we had to be quick and create a lot of natural effects, relying often upon the trick of a wrist and the alchemical reactions between materials. We had no authorship over design or subject, and all our work was anonymous to an extent, but we had fun with the materials and the way they were handled and reacted. I loved that part.  My father is also a puppeteer which I think perhaps influenced my fascination with creatures and animating an object.

I left the Opera to have a baby with the props maker and thought I’d go back, but I started creating sculptures. Friends and others noticed and wanted them, and my practice grew and it’s audience grew. It has been a wonderfully organic development. I’m really happy doing what I do.

Where might we have seen your work?

I mainly work by commission. So possibly you’ve seen my work in a friends home?

But really the internet and blogs have been amazing for me.  Magazines have shown my work, and I have created pieces to exhibit in the stores of Anthropologie in NY and Hermes in Brisbane.  Because of blogs and my web site I get emails from all around the world.  It’s a great time for artists. You don’t have to win over the institutions.  Ones’ work can be peer reviewed through the web, enjoyed and passed on.  A few years ago I would have had to be really quite well known in Australia to receive attention and commissions from people in other countries, but because of the web, something obscure like paper creatures has a great big audience.  My work has recently been shown in Design magazines in Mexico, The U.S, Israel, Russia, Korea, China, The Netherlands and Australia.

Commissions for individual clients (some of these mentioned below).  Clockwise from top left - Gang Gang Cockatoo, House Finch and Whip Bird.

What have been some favourite recent projects / clients / collaborations?

I love making pieces for individuals. I just made a whip bird for a woman in Melbourne, an Osprey for a couple in Sydney, and a Gang Gang Cockatoo for a man in Michigan. The Hermes job I did for the opening of their new store in Brisbane was great. Their visual director Eric Mathews (previous editor of Belle magazine) gave me a lot of freedom with the project and had such confidence in my work that it was a pleasure to do. It was only when I arrived with the pieces in Brisbane that I realised what a tight ship the Hermes operation is, and the pressure he was under. But the French boss arrived and loved my sculptures and wanted to take them home with him. Both Eric and I were very happy. I noticed him politely exhale. It was fun. I like the social part of making pieces especially for someone. Even if it’s a large company, there is a contact to please. But I never really let anyone tell me exactly what to do. People understand this and there is a mutual respect to the operation.

Anna-Wili's horses for Hermes in Brisbane

Horses in situ in Hermes windows!

What is it that you love most about working with paper and copper?

I like natural materials.  I like materials that have a resistance to them.  I like them to dictate the form and the next step to an extent.  I am very much a process based artist.  I would very seldom do a drawing first, because I think that my best ideas come within the process of making something.

I don’t cover my way.  All the materials are there to see.  I think that there is more mystery when you can see how something was made rather than a sleek hidden job.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

I take my daughter to kindy. She cries, I finally leave and them I’m free. I go to my studio in Sydenham.

I look at images of the creature I will be making, if it’s the beginning of a piece.  I then begin the physical process.  I think that I get into a sort of meditative state when I’m making something.  Music can help.  I have to kind of loosen my mind to see what’s happening and the opportunities the artwork presents.  Other artists share the building.  They are all great.  I can ask for a critique if necessary. And chat to a friend if I feel like it.  My husband is my best critic though.  He knows my practice so well.

Then I go back to kindy and find my daughter having a jolly old time.

Where do you turn for creative inspiration – travel, local and international press, books or the web etc.?

You know, at the moment it really is nature and music.  For general aesthetic pleasure I will look at blogs and books on art and design, but for my own work, I think that I strip it back to essentials. In art school I paid a lot of attention to other artists, but I found this a little paralysing at times, because I don’t think that there really is a space for you to create work from other peoples creations. You can’t get inside their creation. I think a good artist leaves space for the viewer to enjoy a piece on a human level rather than to source ideas. People might disagree with me.

Boobook Owl, 2010.

Which other artists, designers other creative people do you admire?

I listen to a lot of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds I find their swooning rhythms help me to get started when working (did I just contradict my last answer?).  Their music is so funny, poetic and musically beautiful. I love Will Oldam too.

In art school I looked a lot at painters like Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans. Anselm Keifer. I always loved the roughness and romance in Rodin's sculptures. The sweet sadness and beautiful narrative understatement of Ilya Kabakov’s work. In Sydney, artists, Nick Strike, Sarah Goffman, Agatha Gothe Snape, Simon Yates, Simon Cavanough (my husband, I was overcome by the beauty and lyrical lightness of his work when we met), Locust Jones to name a few, some are well known, some are not.  I like music and art that allows the viewer in.  Spaces and pauses in a piece to let a persons imagination take hold.

What are you most proud of?

Well, my daughter, and the little family I’m a part of. But in my work I think I’m always most proud of the last piece I’ve made. I fall for the one I’m working on at the time, then send it out and replace it with the next. I’m proud that I have been able to contribute to my family financially though art. And that i have a body of work to show and send out into the world. That I can enjoy my work and take pleasure in making it and seeing it. That people want to live with my sculptures!

What would be your dream creative project?

Because I work by commission and love working this way, I haven’t really had the chance to build a body of work to exhibit together. I would love to rent an empty space. An old house somewhere, a ferry ride away, and fill it with creatures, swooping and darting and perching and looking, relating to each other.

Unless someone visits the studio, which they are very welcome to do.  People don’t see my work in real life unless they own one or know someone who has one. So I’d like to show people.

What are you looking forward to?

Always the next sculpture. An American Kestrel is next. I’m also having a baby in July, so that is exciting for me.

I’m lining up some work related travel in 2012. I don’t like leaving my family so it takes prep time to bring them along.

Sydney Questions

Galah, 2010.

Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?

I grew up on the Northern Beaches, I don’t care for the shooshy village life there, but the landscape still holds me. I love Pittwater, the sandstone, Angopheras, sea and Banksias.

Urban wise, around Surry Hills and Darlinghurst is fun.

What/where was the last great meal you ate in Sydney?

For my thirtieth birthday we set up a long table under a stringy bark on the reserve beside my house in Marrickville. It was dark and all my friends and family each brought a plate of something delicious. It was truly a fabulous feast. I really don’t get out enough to have great restaurant recommendations.

Where do you shop in Sydney for the tools of your trade?

Newtown Art Supplies, Cass Bros. Plumbing supplies in Petersham.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Maroubra Beach, in the waves or pushing a swing somewhere along the Cooks River.

Sydney’s best kept secret?

I don’t think it’s a secret, but my husband and I love Mitchell Rd Auction House. Perusing the old or broken treasures that are only a modest bid, PVA and some nails away.

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email