Anna-Wili Highfield has managed something that evades most artists and has had a thriving and completely self-run artist studio in Sydney for more than a decade. Sitting outside the traditional gallery construct, Highfield worked solely on a commission basis, with clients from all corners of the globe, and could hardly keep up with the demand for her delicately whimsical paper sculptures. Drawing almost exclusively from the animal world, she sews archival cotton rag paper, a very basic material but the results are pure magic. This year has seen a shift in her chosen materials and Highfield has consciously built a collection of works that will, for the first time, be available for viewing before they disappear into a collector’s retreat.
These works, destined for the Olsen Gruin Gallery New York in early 2018, see Highfield replace paper with brass sheet connected with bold intersecting wire and adorned with semi-precious stones. Interestingly Highfield explains that she finds that brass has the same workable qualities that attracted her to paper, but the end result presents a far more dramatic and demanding presence. Figurative bust-like forms are also introduced, as she addresses historical ideas of worship and iconography, that for the first time place her in the centre of her menagerie.
To celebrate her upcoming exhibition in New York, the In/Out team visited Highfield in her Sydney studio to discuss the inspiration behind this exciting new body of work.
Can you tell us a bit about your artistic journey?
I studied Fine Arts at The National Art School in Sydney, majoring in painting. I think my sculptures have a painterly quality to them in the building of planes and fractured layers.
Could you tell us about your upbringing in Sydney, do you stem from a creative family?
Yes, my father is a Puppeteer. I’ve always wanted to be an artist, and it was the only thing I knew I could do well. I see dad’s influence in my work as I animate creatures and figures in sculpture, just as he did with puppetry.
We are intrigued by your current works that include new materials for you like brass, onyx and freshwater pearls, can you tell us about this?
Brass sheet felt right as a material step from cotton paper, it’s workable in a similar way. I’m enjoying the luxe quality of semi-precious materials. It works with my concept of transposing nature with religion in forms that reference Renaissance iconography.
What can you share with us about the works that will exhibit, the subjects and their materiality?
This series started with the idea of referencing nature in a style reminiscent of godly worship. I like the idea of humans as mediums for spirits and nature. In these works the animals are powerful, the human figures subdued. The humans are wholly sensitive beings. Then all these titles with personal social vulnerability came into my head, like ‘some girls feel too much’. I don’t know if I’ll use them but I’m working through something personal, as well as universal in this series. I guess the more universal something is, with a personal undercurrent, is what makes a piece relatable.
I’m really excited about New York. I had just finished a huge commission and started playing with my first series in ten years, made outside of the commission process. I became obsessed and made seven works in seven weeks. Tim Olsen visited my studio and offered me a solo show in his new New York space, Olsen Gruin Gallery.
Your work often relates to animals, birds… what draws you to these creatures?
I often think of every animal as a portrait of me, of everyone. A spirit that is relatable. Greater than personality and species. There is also a reverence for nature as the only great truth to be worshipped.
And what is your personal favourite?
At the moment it’s a brass figure entwined with a monkey.
What are your favourite travel destinations?
How do you express yourself through fashion and interiors choices? What is your enduring style?
Minimal, but always with treasures
Best piece of advice you have been given?
“When inspiration strikes, I want it to find me working” – Picasso
In a few words, what are you currently…
Watching: 60’s Italian cinema
Reading: WG Sebald
Trawling: Renaissance headwear
Giving: My impressions through form
Credits: Anna-Wili Highfield
Photography: Julie Adams