Freelance writer from Sydney. www.theaureview.com/user/james-odoherty
Published August 9th 2011
Anna-Wili Highfield is a Sydney-based sculptor who constructs animals out of torn paper and copper pipe. On the eve of her first international show, she had a chat with James O'Doherty about life, her art, and the importance of our most personal space – the bedroom.
Look at a snapshot of Anna-Wili Highfield's bedroom, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was a scene straight from the 1950s. Worn edges, dark woods, fading paint and sparse furnishings all occupy the small space. A vase of faded gardenias sits on the bedside table. In fact, it's only the flashing of a small digital clock that brings her bedroom into the present, the date reminding Highfield of her impending exhibition in New York's Rockefeller Centre.
The space is bare, but decidedly so – she's always believed that in a bedroom, nothing should be too distracting from sleep. Even so, it still has its beauty. "I love the idea that everything you can see is either aesthetically pleasing and practical, or just art," says Highfield. From the rough edges of her wardrobe to the weathered boots tucked away on the floor, everything has its own character.
Her rough and ready approach transcends into art. "I wouldn't really call my work that delicate... when I'm making it I'm not really that gentle with it. I kind of push it and pull it and turn it upside down," she says. "Sometimes I'll prick my finger, there'll be a bit of blood, and I'll just leave it... everything's a story of how something's made," she adds with a laugh. Admittedly "slapdash," she will barely cut the loose threads that remain after sewing her works together: "I don't like things to be too defined... I'm a figurative artist. I like to make an impression of something."
The 29-year-old admits that her room has remained similar since her days as a teen, but with a difference: she no longer creates art in her home. "I guess things like my bedroom and my house are really important to me the way I've set them up... because I'm here with a little girl."
Taking us to her tiny Stanmore studio, Highfield dances around the clutter, managing to find order in even the most claustrophobic of spaces. Despite her tight confines, she still manages to instil a "freedom, integrity and beauty" in her works. Owls, eagles and horses transcend their material confines – "I like the idea of having a bit of the character in it without it being too literal." She also likes the idea of a strong material, "that will spring back at you and resist sometimes." This resistance gives her animals an energetic beauty, rigidly defiant of being caged or mounted on a wall.
The studio – filled with Highfield's copper and paper menagerie – is shared with her husband, Simon Cavanough. As she explains, his work parallels with her own. "I think that's so funny, because it's so boy and girl, the way we make our art," she says. "There's a common aesthetic... we've got the same preoccupations, but in a very gendered way."
Later, at a small council-run show of local works, both Anna-Wili and Cavanough relax as their toddler runs amok on lawn-bowl greens. The family affair is a way for the council to justify their investment in local art, and is a far cry from Sydney's international art scene – and Paddington's Bianca Spender boutique where a huge copper horse of Highfield resides.
As a nervous Anna-Wili prepares to fly out to New York, she confides that it's not her normal locale. "It just isn't really how I would exhibit if it wasn't an obligatory part of having the studio," she says. Admittedly, it will be "heart-wrenchingly weird" to leave her daughter, her husband, and the "fun and friendly" atmosphere of the local show behind – but the excitement of her imminent exhibition at Anthropologie is palpable.
It's a few months later, and back in Australia, Anna-Wili is glowing with the same humble smile. "New York was great, it's a thrilling city," she says. "The show was in a concept gallery... They filmed it for TV for a show called Man Shops Globe, on the Sundance channel."
Her trip changed everything, but still kept her the same. "I have been inundated by commissions from people all over the states, it's great. At the moment I'm working through a year long waiting list for sculptures," she says. "It's getting big," she admits. But "it's only me and my hands and the time I have."
It's still one artist, her hands, and a chaotic shared studio, releasing beautiful, enigmatic animals into the wild. After all the international hype, Highfield still takes things in her humble stride. Although, as she admits, "it's pretty cool."