The secret to sculptor Anna-Wili Highfield's success: break the mould
Sydney Morning Herald May 4, 2019
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Anna-Wili Highfield has eschewed the traditional gallery system with a trajectory that has taken her work from a local designer’s living room to the boutiques of Tiffany and Hermès.
Anna-Wili Highfield remembers the moment she realised she was staring a whole new world in the eye. It was early 2011, she was 30 and she had, she happily admits, lost control of her life. Newly pregnant, she was in the living room of her house in Sydney's inner west with her daughter, Matilda, who had just turned four, and her cousin, Xanthe Highfield. Not that maternity was the immediate issue. Matilda was the original love child, conceived shortly after Highfield and her partner, Simon Cavanough, met at Opera Australia, where she was an apprentice scenery painter and he a prop maker. The couple's son, Claude, was a long-planned addition to the family.The issue at hand was the other, unplanned baby that had arrived with Matilda: Highfield's career as an accidental sculptor. A figurative painter by training, she had begun to experiment with sculpture after taking maternity leave from Opera Australia in 2007. She had done so as therapy, she says, to survive the stone-cold shock of domesticity.
"Children level your life," Highfield says, as we sit in a cafe in inner-Sydney Redfern. "Everything focuses and narrows. I went crazy. I was listening to way too much [ABC] News Radio and everything becomes terrifying, from how much you love them to the state of the world or the shadows on the wall."
Unable to escape to work, she began stitching sculptures at home out of cotton rag paper, figuring it out as she went. She had made her very first sculpture - a life-sized horse in copper piping - almost as a dare a year earlier to show at Pigeon Ground, the vintage clothing and records store then located in Sydney's Camperdown and started by her two art-school housemates, Agatha Gothe-Snape and Alex Elliott-Howery, who would go on to found the Cornersmith cafe and cookery group. "Aggy and Alex would have these parties where artists did windows; Aggy asked me to do one and I said I was going to do this massive horse," Highfield, now 38, recalls. "It was kind of a joke. I just picked the biggest thing I could think of. To show off. It wasn't for sale."It was by the time fledgling designer (and seasoned hippophile) Bianca Spender saw it. She and Highfield had met when Spender bought a tiny painting from Highfield's graduating show at Sydney's National Art School, her first and only sale to that point. When Highfield told Spender she had moved on from painting and was making a horse from pipes, the designer - just back from overseas and working for her mother, Carla Zampatti - was incredulous.
"I asked her how she'd done it and she said, 'I just bent them'," Spender says. "I asked how it was held together and she said, 'Copper wire and masking tape; I'm going to hang it from the ceiling'. I thought, 'You have to be kidding'." Then Spender saw it. "It was like one of those drawings where you can't lift your pen from the paper, turned magically into three dimensions. It was utterly transformative. I thought, 'I have to have that horse.'
"There were about 20 seconds between seeing it and being able to get Anna-Wili's attention to ask, firstly, if it was for sale and, secondly, if anyone had bought it, and they were the longest 20 seconds of my life."
Re-hung from the ceiling of Spender's Bronte home, the horse featured in a Sydney Morning Herald article on Spender, who subsequently commissioned Highfield to make other works, including a paper owl for the launch of her first store on Oxford Street in Sydney's east. Suspended mid-flight, pursuing a fleeing Spender dress, that owl nailed the eye, particularly at night, spot-lit and spooky. Images were shared. People came in to ask about the artist. What had been a trickle of commissions and interview requests turned into a tide. Highfield never made it back to Opera Australia to finish her apprenticeship. She swapped the owl for a Spender wedding dress when she and Cavanough married in 2009.
Her life changed gear. Particularly after an interview request from a show called Man Shops Globe on the Sundance Channel in the US - which visited her in her studio on the recommendation of then New York-based Australian stylist Sibella Court - and a commission from luxury goods company Hermès, specifically its Australian communications director Eric Matthews, a former editor of Belle magazine with an interest in art.
Time was becoming a real issue. Highfield hired an artist's studio in a converted terrace, escaping there at every opportunity. Increasingly, she was barely getting through her emails. "I was making sculptures, not marketing myself, but I could just feel something happening and it was getting bigger and bigger," she says. "It was fabulous and it saved me, but I just couldn't keep up."
By 2011, she had a waiting list of 200 people and up to three years, which is when she recruited her cousin Xanthe as her first assistant. "I remember I was holding Matilda and Xanthe was at my desk and she looked up and said: 'Wili, The New York Times wants to know why you're not answering their emails,' " she says. "I remember thinking, 'F..., I've gone viral'. I was getting commissions from all around the world, interview requests from German and American art magazines and Russian Vogue. You could literally track it on a map.
"The interest in me as a personality was hilarious. I was being asked my favourite Sydney restaurant. I remember thinking, 'This is so beyond my life', which is about going to the studio and the park."
Glamour was to follow, though, and when it did, it found Highfield ready. The portrait that accompanied the subsequent New York Times article showed her young and beautiful - "They photo-shopped me to a ghoulish extent," she grimaces - with the just-finished, three-quarter-scale Hermès horse behind her, busting through a wall.
As she herself was about to. When Pegasus flew into Hermès' Brisbane store, a local bus driver started pulling over between stops to give passengers a look. When it flew on to Melbourne, businesswoman and art collector Carol Schwartz not only spotted it in the Hermès window, but travelled to Sydney to meet the artist. "It had this extraordinary strength and delicacy," remembers Schwartz. "I was so fascinated by it that I wanted to meet her. Her studio was in an old house back then and it was just so incongruous: this amazingly beautiful woman and this amazingly beautiful work in this funny little room."
A subsequent commission, an unkindness of ravens for Hermès' Sydney windows, caught the eye of prominent Australian artist Ken Unsworth, who contacted Highfield to buy a work. Her waiting list would peak at five years, before shrinking back to months as she started concentrating on fewer, bigger commissions, her prices increasing from the few thousand dollars she originally charged to upwards of $20,000 today for major works.
I was getting commissions from all around the world ... You could track it on a map. The interest in me as a personality was hilarious.- Anna-Wili Highfield
"Her story is so inspiring in terms of just starting to do something and everyone being magnetically attracted to it," says Spender.
That magnetism partly reflects her subject matter - nature at the time it is most in peril - along with the novelty of her medium, cotton rag paper, and her ability to conjure a creature through a bravura display of technical skill. It's also about what she then takes away: up to 70 per cent of the work, to "allow a doorway for the imagination". What Highfield's works communicate is not a likeness so much as a living moment; of apprehension, as a thing coheres from its parts, as artist and audience collude to create it. As she puts it: "I'm creating a vessel for a particular energy."
Along the way, Highfield has crafted a very individual way of being an artist in Australia: working entirely on her own account, independent of traditional enablers such as public and private galleries, instead powered by word of mouth and social media. It says it all that her first commercial show in Australia will be at the Tim Olsen Gallery in Sydney in October, more than a decade into a successful career, and 18 months after Olsen showed her in New York. "I would have approached her sooner had I known," says Olsen, who sees echoes of everyone from the great American sculptor Alexander Calder to surrealists such as Salvador Dali and Man Ray in Highfield's work.
Instead, her staple has been commissions from individuals who have found their way to her. It's a fresh angle on the new world's oldest story: a system of established gatekeepers - recording or publishing companies, the public and private gallery system - is circumvented by new technology (such as made-for-art Instagram, which emerged around the same time as Highfield), erasing old barriers to entry in the process.
In Highfield's case, those new players have been luxury goods companies and their ever-increasing appetite for artist collaborations. Hermès has played the kind of patronage-and-promotional role for her that public galleries have in more traditional careers. Highfield has made a major work for the house every year since Pegasus, 10 in total, including a series of horses for its Istanbul store last year and another in Hermès leather, animated mechanically by Highfield's husband Simon (the two separated in 2014, but remain close, working in adjoining studios and sharing the children). She is now working on an 11th piece destined for Europe.
There's nothing new about such collaborations, from Dali and couturier Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s to Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama and Richard Prince since. The heydays of luxury goods and contemporary art have coincided - often merged - over the past two decades. Think Damien Hirst's $US100 million 2007 diamond skull, the memento mori of the pre-GFC boom. In the decade since, collaborations have exploded. Pure and applied creativity have grown ever-more symbiotic.
When jeweller Tiffany & Co. opened its new flagship store in Sydney's King Street last month, including its first permanent high jewellery offering in Australia, it included a pair of new Highfield works. In two private suites on the upstairs bridal mezzanine, sprays of delicate fairy wrens explode from sconces of silvery bottle brush, circling the heads of ring-shopping couples.
The choice of wrens typifies the cleverness of Highfield's work, expressing not only the artist but a client and relationship. Beyond being fabulously decorative, the birds are native - part of the idea of commissioning local artists for the store was to give it a sense of place - the males' brilliant hoods a near-as-damn approximation of Tiffany blue. "They just remind you of that wonderful line from the film: 'Nothing bad could ever happen at Tiffany's'," the jeweller's vice-president of visual merchandising, Richard Moore, said during a lightning visit to Sydney for the opening.
Success usually comes at a price, and whether Highfield will be embraced by the mainstream contemporary art world or dismissed as a lifestyle, commercial or craft artist - as so many female artists have been - remains to be seen. Her New York show was only a moderate success, says Tim Olsen, though works have continued to sell since.
"The transition from fashion and design to pure art is a lot easier these days," he adds, citing his recent Dinosaur Designs show, featuring work by his sister, Louise Olsen, and her partner, Stephen Ormandy, which sold out. "Anna's work totally transcends craft, design or fashion. Sometimes I don't know how she holds them together. And I think she realises she has to move beyond commissions to be taken seriously as an artist."
According to Agatha Gothe-Snape - a successful "serious" artist whose work is held by public galleries - Highfield is already past that. "It's just such a relief that pure talent and work speak louder than any institutional approval," Gothe-Snape says. "I don't know any artists who have been able to raise two kids and live the life she does in Sydney from their art. It's just unheard of."
Gothe-Snape recalls the time Highfield made a profile of her son out of pipe cleaners. "It isn't just that the likeness is profound; it is actually him. My boyfriend [artist Mitch Cairns, who won the Archibald Prize in 2017 with a portrait of Gothe-Snape] took one look at it and said, 'That's literally the best thing I have ever seen'. It's magic and she's always had it."
Says Highfield of her works: "They have to feel alive - really alive. It's like painting a portrait. One tiny, little mark and all of a sudden it looks like that person. It didn't a moment before and it may not a moment later. I'll just do something and all of a sudden it's alive and singing." If it isn't, she kills it. The day of the shoot for this article, she sends a text asking if an owl she has been working on is in any of the shots. "I just destroyed it," she says when asked why. "You can't let things out that aren't good."
Highfield grew up in Palm Beach - the real Summer Bay - on Sydney's northern beaches, "right on the edge of a nature reserve", she says. "We'd climb up through the ferns from our back yard and play in the caves overlooking Pittwater."
It was the 1980s and early '90s. The rich blew into town mainly on weekends and holidays, but the parents of her classmates at Barrenjoey High tended to be "builders, photographers, film-makers and artists ... makers". Like her own. Her mother, Katie Swift, was a caterer-turned-food stylist, as her own mother - the early food personality and presenter Rosemary Penman, whom Highfield is said to most resemble - had been. Her father, Allan Highfield, was a puppeteer with the legendary troupe the Tintookies and live-action puppet show Blinky Bill on ABC TV.
"That animism of hers has something to do with the fact that her dad was a puppeteer," says Gothe-Snape. "It's in her hands as they touch things. It's how she connects with the world. She's such an elegant, glamorous person, but you look at her hands and they're real: a worker's."
"Maybe," Highfield says, turning the idea over in her mind. "I pull the strings [as she stitches a work together] and something becomes alive. I was certainly very proud at school that my Dad was Charlie Goanna, Walter Wombat and Sybilla the Snake. He was deeply interested in Aboriginal culture. He'd go away for months at a time touring puppet shows around Australia and he'd often stay in Aboriginal communities."
That's how Highfield got her name. "When I was born, Dad was somewhere near Bega doing a show," Highfield says. "Apparently there were pelicans circling the phone box when he rang and found out I'd just been born, earlier than expected. So he found out the local Aboriginal name for pelican and came home saying he wanted to call me Wili. Mum wanted to call me Anna and they argued about it until my grandmother said, 'Just put a hyphen in the middle'."
That pretty well summed up the relationship. Her father drank and had a "temper that made things frightening", Highfield says. When she was 11, she and her elder sister found out that the son of a family friend was actually their half-brother. Her parents divorced when she was 12. "There were so many fracture points, but I just remember this camping trip when we met Dad in Darwin, where he was on tour, and drove back to Sydney over six weeks. They just argued the whole way.
"Dad was nature man, with a beard down to here. He called mum a yuppy - we weren't allowed to have tents because tents were for yuppies - and he always wanted us to only eat roadkill. I'd lock myself in the car at night and cry. I just remember watching mum washing her face in the billabong with Clarin's cleanser and thinking, 'They are so different'."
Her name enshrines the dichotomy. In conversation for this article, family and friends tend to call her Wili, while the luxury and gallery set prefer Anna. For all her swan-like qualities, Highfield also has an endearingly daggy awkwardness. An honesty and lack of pretence - what Tim Olsen refers to as her "uncertain certainty".
"Growing up, I was the fat kid with Coke-bottle bifocals," she says. "I was dyslexic, but it was never diagnosed. The only thing I could do well was draw, so I drew all the time and that got me through 12 years of school. I wouldn't have had a shred of confidence without it."
It's tempting to see that dyslexia as an essential part of how she's navigated the world: at an angle, by feel, instinct. As a teenager, she didn't fit in. "Palm Beach looked idyllic but it was a monoculture and I wasn't interested in surfing. I didn't date anyone. I would stay in my room and paint. I was a romantic snob, reading Keats and Shelley."
The other thing that having an artist for a father did do, Highfield says, was "make me a better business person". Her mother kept the family afloat, not only by working but also mortgaging and re-mortgaging the family home until she eventually lost it when Highfield was in her 20s. "Mum got us out the door and we wanted for nothing," Highfield says. "But when I finished school she said, 'Can't you do graphic design? There's more chance of a steady job', because she knew how hard it was. When I said, 'I'm not good at graphic design and I'm not interested in it', she said, 'Just promise me you'll try and make money where you can. Your father was always talking about the purity of his art.'"
I think Anna realises she has to move beyond commissions to be taken seriously as an artist. - Tim Olsen
Highfield knew she had to find a way to make it work. "A lot of my anxiety early on, when I was having Matilda, was about how I was going to do that - work and have children and make art - which is why what happened was so wonderful. I started not asking a lot for my work, which I now think was actually quite clever. It was about honing my art, getting work out there."
Successful second-generation creatives occur regularly in this story, from Highfield to Spender, Olsen and Gothe-Snape, the daughter of the artist Michael Snape. They're a generational creative cohort who grew up together. But they all seem to have learnt a thing or two about the business in the process. In Highfield's case, it helped that she enjoyed working on commission, which a lot of artists hate.
"To me, art's an exchange. I like having somebody in mind and doing what they want. There's a reciprocity and structure and warmth. Artists making work for the museum is a 20th-century thing. And it meant I could work outside an art world I was afraid would reject me. It bought me time to figure out what my work was about by making it; I didn't have to go in with a pitch. And it was good for my confidence. People wanted me to do what I did - for them. And they kept coming back."
Ten years after they first met, Carol Schwartz now has 14 Highfield works, including a flock of birds, a parliament of owls and a mob of kangaroos. The latter stand in the kitchen of her beach house on Victoria's Great Ocean Road.
"There are hundreds of kangaroos on the property and it looks like three of them just wandered in," she says. "The expression she has given them is remarkable. They're so alive, they just blow people away. The fascinating thing about her work is that it's only paper and it's partial, so your imagination takes over and fills in the blanks." Spender has so many works - including three horses at home, four in stores and boutiques, and one in her studio - that her partner has declared a fatwa. "I'm not allowed any more," she says. These days, that first Highfield painting sits on her bedside table.
Highfield's latest project is her largest yet, a house she and her mother bought in Sydney's inner west and are converting into a compound where all four generations will live. "Mum and my grandmother are having the main house and the kids and I are building a smaller house out the back, separated by a garden," Highfield says. "I like small spaces. They force you to be efficient. I only want to have my treasures. Nothing else."
Twenty years after she left home, she has come full circle, particularly given the builder and renovator of the two houses will be her half-brother, Max Arent, another family "maker". "We're all very close these days," Highfield says. "And Dad is a beautiful grandfather. I guess everything works out in the end if you're open to change and tack with the wind. It's like art: it comes together in the making."