“I just start, I just kind of do it and see what happens. I do watercolour paintings on cotton paper and then I tear it and just start sewing these creatures together.”
Australian artist Anna-Wili Highfield, (Wili is the Aboriginal name for pelican in the area where her father was when she was born), creates the most spirited animals you’ll find in captivity (that is, for an Hermès window, on that album cover or in the living room of an international art collector). With a puppeteer father and a stylist (and now cordial-maker) mother, becoming an artist was simply assumed for this National Art School, Sydney, graduate. Her methods are impulsive, she follows her heart, and materials are minimal: threads are left loose and paper torn, her works allow the animals’ personalities to come to life in our minds.
Unsurprisingly an Attenborough fan (“I love David Attenborough and everything that he does – I think he’s everybody’s favourite grandpa”), her works are exclusively of animals. “I’m more interested in animals than people because I feel like they’re that step removed from us, so it’s not such an obvious, kind of inward-looking subject. But then, I am trying to find a spirit that we can relate to in a certain creature. And that’s what I’m trying to bring to the floor is this spirit that you can connect with and feel like you sort of share experience with.”
When first faced with her petit robin or life-size, head-height kangaroos, curiosity overcomes you: are they fragile? Do you do preliminary sketches? (No and no.) How do you capture them in motion and how do you know when to stop? For Highfield, creating the emotion and capturing them mid-motion is just gut instinct, and sometimes a little bit of help from an old friend. “With a pull of a string suddenly it comes to life and you don’t know why but you’ve just got to keep on playing with it until, for some reason, it feels alive.” However, it’s not always so easy: “Sometimes I’ve really got to make dramatic changes and do something like rip the head off… And then I do one tiny thing and suddenly it all comes to life ... I just learnt that it’s always worth taking a risk. If something is just passable then it’s not good enough and it can be better. Every time I’m rewarded if I do something drastic.”
For times when it’s just not working there is another she turns to – Nick Cave. “Since I was 16 whenever I made art I listened to Nick Cave ... I often find if I’m having trouble with a piece, if I put him on it resolves itself quicker.”
A resolved, finished form for Highfield does not equate to an animal as we know it. There’s raggedness, breathing spaces in the works and a spontaneous feel that allows us to create their existence. “I think there’s an element of mystery and it’s a way of drawing people in. And I find in music and literature and art and everything that I like, it gives me a place to come in through. You know, if it tells me everything and it’s all in my face then I can’t get in ... If you can see how something was made then it makes you wonder about how it was made more. It makes you think about the process.”
And for Highfield, making art is it – pure joy. “That moment of knowing you’re onto something and it feels exciting and you’re just in some kind of creative zone where it’s almost like an out-of-mind experience ... Everybody knows that feeling of creating something and just feeling the electricity of that, and that’s the best part for me.”