When Anna-Wili Highfield works in her light-filled studio in Sydney, the 31-year-old becomes a sort of hybrid between a taxidermist and a couture seamstress. Based at Stone Villa, the Federation-era terrace house she shares with other artists, Highfield produces exquisite, lifelike animal sculptures out of paper and thread.
To build her creatures, Highfield fashions lengths of copper and brass pipe into frames shaped like animals. She then shreds thick, archival cotton paper, paints it with watercolors, and uses a needle and sturdy thread to stitch the paper onto the frame. The artist says it takes a lot of trial and error to fine-tune an animal’s silhouette. “I’ve learned to not be scared of tearing something up and starting all over again,” she says.
Highfield, who once painted stage sets for Opera Australia, is one of a growing number of artists who have started to elevate paper beyond its more prosaic functions. “There is a sense of wonder about the familiar changing so remarkably,” she says.
Her distinctive, highly tactile technique was honed over time. “My sculptures have become more refined over the years,” the artist says, pointing out that she still likes to leave some stitches visible to subtly highlight her materials and process. This method, Highfield notes, is not about achieving a perfect replica of an animal but about capturing its singular energy. Take the steely-eyed peregrine falcon she recently created: “I like the look of concentrated focus in birds of prey,” she says. “They are powerful and very intent.”
Her pieces, which take weeks to complete, range from a white-winged wren, just a few inches in height, to magisterial, life-size horse heads that she made for the Hermès boutique in Sydney last year. Due to the demand for her work (pieces start at $1,900), Highfield works on a first-come, first-served basis. Wait times currently stretch to over a year. “When collectors can, they arrange to come to the studio, and we begin the collaborative process of finding out what type of sculpture they want,” she says.
Highfield receives many requests for exotic animals, including panda bears and sea turtles, but she still finds herself returning to creatures she encounters in Australia. Native birds such as kookaburras continue to beguile her, as do marsupials. “My next challenge is to create a kangaroo,” she says. “I was inspired by a childhood memory of walking in the bush. Despite the complete silence, you may turn around to find a kangaroo curiously watching you. I want to bring that sensation to life through one of my sculptures.” A
Photos by Petrina Tinsley. This appeared in the May/June 2012 issue.