Anna-Wili Highfield

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Born in Sydney 1980, Anna-Wili studied Fine Art at the National Art School, Sydney. In 2008, after working as a Scenic Artist for Opera Australia, she began making sculptures independently by commission. Her works are held in private collections around the world and have featured in numerous publications. Solo exhibitions include Animals, Carriageworks, Sydney 2015 and Spirit Faces, Olsen Gruin gallery NYC 2018.

Cover Photo: Peter Van Alphen

Tell us a little about your artistic background. What were your first influences to be creative and become a serious artist?

Art making I my sole talent, I'm dyslexia so was late to read and write, but have always painted and drawn. I'm lucky, if a child focusses on a particular interest, they can start pursuing it early. I sometimes think about how before the 20th century, children were apprenticed to artists, worked hard and progressed younger than we do.

I spent most of my time as a teenager in my room painting (and listening to Nick Cave, haha)
My father is a puppeteer and his influence is obvious. He had a career in the arts, so it seemed natural to me that I could have one too.

When I went to art college this confidence was shaken. Everyone there was talented so I didn't stand out anymore. I realized later that the way to be an artist is to continually practice and treat it like a job. There's this great Miles Davis quote “it takes a long time playing to sound like yourself”

Is it possible to sustain for a new contemporary artist to perform his/her work, even create it without a notable capital in hand – at least for a decent start?

It is a rare privilege to be a career artist. I didn't start with any money. I made some sculptures, people noticed them and then the internet gave my career a running start. Suddenly I was getting press requests and commissions from all over the world. I remember saying “wow, I'm big in Istanbul!” haha, this was probably an illusion but felt great! I went the opposite way around to most artist's, I didn't show in galleries until my career was stable and constant. As said, this is a rare privilege, but a model that can help a career. I think I gained momentum because information sharing allows a niche audience across the globe. 20 years ago, without the internet boom, I doubt I'd be receiving interview requests from international publications like yours.

Can you explain the process of creating your work?

I decide what I'm going to make, but then let the process dictate the form. I'm careful not to give the work a fixed structure to begin with and to be ready to tear it apart and build it back up, until it feels alive.

Photographer: Jai Odell

How was working as a Scenic Artist for Opera Australia?

I love opera, I find great joy and inspiration sitting in a theater when the lights go down. Unexpectedly (because my work was the scenery) I'd close my eyes to enjoy the music, I think I needed to isolate the senses. Working painting scenery, was hard and physical, time was always against us and the sets are huge. The great thing I took away from this work was an ability to economise form and materials. We had to efficiently mimic natural surfaces like marble and wood. This was done by throwing paint down then dispersing it with chemicals like methylated spirits to achieve a natural effect. I still use what I learned there, how to make a brave gesture then let the effect on my materials dictate the next move.

How did COVID affect your creative progress?

I've been lucky to still have work, but presently Sydney is in a state of lockdown, where we can't go out except to buy food or exercise. Our cases of covid aren't high, so it's a precautionary measure.

With schools closed and kids at home, I'm not alone enough to easily access my creative mind. I was speaking to a writer today and we were wondering why we're not prolific with all this time on our hands. Seems there's a general feeling of malaise. I wonder if your community are feeling the same way.

By the means of support, I find UK quite sincere. In UK, there is a Culture Recovery Fund, a £1.57 billion fund supporting cultural organizations through the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. What about your country? Are you satisfied with it both by the means of ease of access and economical value ?

We do have some support, our welfare system is relatively strong. But I think there's a confusion this time around. Our conservative government have been steadily eroding funding for the arts anyway, for years now. They've little interest in how thriving culture keeps cities alive and relevant in the world. We are though fortunate to not have a serious COVID problem here, because we are a big island with strict borders.

Please tell us your relation with Hermes, how it started and what did you do for them?

I was first contacted by Hermès's in Australia in 2010. Since then I've created ten windows, here and abroad. It's been a huge honor to work with a brand of great history, integrity and design. Hermès have given me freedom to create with sincere respect for artistic process.

You have been to Turkey before. What was it about and how was your experience?

I traveled to Istanbul in 2018 with artwork commissioned from Paris, for the opening of a new Hermès store. I loved the city, It was a shame that I could only stay for one week, I really hope to go back. I found people very friendly, interesting and interested in art and culture. =Hearing the call to prayer every day was truly beautiful. I found there was a sense of a timeless history and the contemporary mixed together in this city. enchantment

Can you describe what an average working day for you is like?

I begin in the morning and don't break for lunch etc, so I can keep an energy and momentum going. Sometimes it's hard to stop work for my mothering role. I'm separated from my ex husband, who has the children half the time. So I try to use my time alone to work longer hours.

In your opinion, what role does the artist have in society?

I think our role is to communicate something beyond simple language, to share access to a different, abstract intelligence. I find art a relief, as an audience it reminds us of our own poetic, spiritual self. Art is my greatest comfort when I feel lost.

Rousseau, in his famous essay A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, states that corruption of taste is a necessary consequence of luxury. High price tags in sale of contemporary art is common, then comes the 'luxury' tag in course. What about the taste? For Rousseau, in my own interpretaion, contemporary art lover's taste is corrupted. How do you elaborate such bold statemen?

I think there is a rush to predict the avant-garde, this can lead to elitism and exclusion, then trends that become mainstream. I'm reminded of the fable 'The Emperors New Clothes' where the people don't tell the king he's naked because no one is confident that what they see is true and so they conform to the illusion. If the Emperor believes he is dressed in fine clothes, he is the authority and so It's true. Then a child in the crowd yells out that the Emperor is naked and the illusion is shattered.

Conversely (of course) I don't think that a conservative relationship to art is wise or tolerable. We should support experimentation. The true avant-garde can refresh the world.

My opinion is that the best work is made with a desire to channel a spirit to share with an audience, In confidence that people are intelligent, sensitive and responsive. It's important to me that I invite people's minds in to the work, by not explaining everything. If I forget this then my work is selfish and inaccessible. The audience is one third of the artwork, It's myself, the sculpture and the viewer.

Let's continue with Rousseau since I find debating his classic work with an artist of merit like you quite valuable. He states that if an extraordinary talent who has a firm soul and refuses to lend himself to the spirit of his age and demean himself with puerile works he/she will die in poverty and oblivion. For my perception, contemporary art is very individual, a part from 'what will please public'. With this context, now I find Rousseau supporting the fundamentals of modern art involuntarily. What is your comment both on Rousseau and public taste?

Thank you, I find your questions inspiring and refreshing, like good art you trust that your audience want to go deep into ideas.

In answer to your question, I think that there is a place In the middle, that there is a difference between bending to taste and having a sense of inclusion. If an artist's honest intention is to communicate sincerely with an audience then I don't see a compromise. Sometimes an artist's most popular work finances an experimental series. If you aren't sensitive to an exchange with the viewer and do not see them as intelligent contributors to the work, then you risk being exclusive through arrogance. 

It's true though that one can't let an audience dictate the work entirely, there's no possibility then of accessing the abstract mind integral to creating good work. If you wrestle and play with an artwork in the studio until it is alive and sings, then it can sing to everyone.

I like that children respond to my work. I was once parked in a street when a little boy climbed the bonnet of my car to look at a sculpture sitting on the front seat, he was fascinated, then saw me and fell off my car. That's the truth.

Are there any lessons that you've learned that you could pass on to the younger generation of artists as they begin their journeys?

It's the same lesson I think many career artists would give, treat your work like a job, keep set hours and don't wait for the mood to take you. I find making the work inspires it. Picasso said that “inspiration exists, but when it comes I want it to find me working”

I am very thankful for your time and warm acceptance of interview. Please feel free to share your final thoughts on any subject which we did not covered in our interview.

Thank you, it's been a pleasure to articulate my thoughts in answer to your questions.

I think in conclusion I'll repeat my thoughts. Respect your audience and imagine their engagement, but the first collaborator is the spirit of the work. Wrestle and dance with this spirit until it's captured and ready to be released into the world.

Thank you Cihan, It's been a pleasure.

Artist's Website

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