If our spirit animal wasn’t a wolf it would definitely be an Anna-Wili. She’s the kind of woman every woman wants to be: Talented, successful, grounded and deeply compassionate, with an uncanny ability to know exactly what’s important in life. She has worked with clients like Hermes and Anthropologie, as well as a slew of independent commissions by international clients.
Anna-Wili is a sculptor, creating exquisite paper creatures that look like something torn from the pages of a fairytale. But unlike the animals in storybooks, Anna-Wili’s animals are not allegorical forms meant to teach children to sit up straight and not talk to strangers. For the artist, it is the animal spirit itself that she strives to capture. An elusive language that she is convinced human beings could understand, if we could only bother enough to try.
“My art is about our relationship with the natural world,” Anna-Wili explains from her studio in Sydney, “It’s about capturing a moment of recognition of a shared consciousness with another species.”
As it stands, humanity has almost completely separated itself from nature. Many of us haven’t felt the grass on our bare feet for years, and somewhere along the way, we’ve developed this idea that we’re different from other animals. That being human is somehow different from being Owl, or Wolf, or Bear. But Anna-Wili Highfield believes this is all an illusion. “Through my art I want to show a character or spirit we can relate to, as a reminder that we are animals,” she explains, “I guess its my quiet way of showing a regard for the natural world and thinking about our responsibilities to it. I often think of there just being a language barrier between animals and humans.”
Her sculptures invite us to look at a horse or an owl the same way we might look at a classical bust of an ancient Roman emperor, or a general in Napoleon’s army, in the sense that it is an entity just like us, capturing the essence of someone as opposed to something.
“My work is portraiture in a way, but of animal rather than human life. I like creating animals because they can represent a spirit without having an individual personal story attached, like a human portrait might. Sometimes I think the connection can be more immediate for this reason. It is more elemental. What I’m trying to show is nature staring back at us, and a moment of connection.”
This connection is the main reason Anna-Wili tends to prefer working with predatory animals in her sculptures. Because if it’s a connection you’re looking for, of all the creatures on this planet, nothing will stare you down like a predator. “I like predatory animals because of the intensity of their gaze,” the artist explains, “I’ve made a lot of Owls because they are hunting birds of the night, with eyes at the front of their heads. This means that I can really play with the eye contact the piece will give you. I think there is such mythology around owls because people can relate to that face.”
“I make a lot of birds,” the artist admits, “I guess they kind of represent a freedom we aspire to. Within the bird world there are so many characters though. A parrot might look amused, a Raven clever.”
“And so, my work is about exploring a respect for animals and reminding us of a shared consciousness. This theme is something that persists in my work. It’s humanity’s sense of entitlement that has gotten us into the mess the natural world is in, so anything that reminds us that we are part of nature is good. But my work is subtle; it just hopefully makes you feel a moment of connection with a creature and then I don’t tell the viewer where to take that, but if it makes people think about our responsibilities to nature then thats great.”
Anna has collaborated with a number of animal rights advocacy groups like Voiceless, and the World Wildlife Fund as a way to give back and further merge her creative goals with her altruistic ones. “I recently made a piece for the animal advocacy group Voiceless. They are doing great things to strengthen animal law and the rights of farm animals to protection against legalised cruelty” she says, “it’s so sad to see the utter devastation wildlife is suffering, where economic advantage comes from decimating habitat.”
It is a strange thing to be an artist in a chaotic world. You are torn between your need to create, communicate and to express, and your obligation to try and mend the chaos that you see around you. Unlike brain surgeons and engineers who can transform the world in a very direct way, artists are compelled to do what they do best, and get creative about spreading awareness and positivity in the world.
Anna-Wili Highfield has built a successful career online. By being open to collaboration and putting her work out there, she has managed to build a global reach with clients coming from all over the world. “It’s a great time for artists,” she explains, “A few years ago I would have had to be really well known in Australia to receive attention and commissions from people in other countries, but because of the web, something obscure like paper creatures has a great big audience.”
And if you had any reservations about what being an artist is really like, Anna-Wili couldn’t imagine anything better. “It’s the best!” she says, and urges anyone with a dream to follow it, and push yourself. “I think you can do anything you want to if you’re open and take chances and work hard. I’ve seen many friends just decide what they want to be and then work towards it and then it happens. I’m lucky though to make a living from my work, that part is hard to achieve,” she admits, “but it’s totally possible so I would never discourage anyone. I think working a lot and being open to opportunities is a good starting point.”
For anyone who dreams of becoming an artist, and hopes to actually make a living from creative work can expect to struggle for a while. But Anna-Wili points out that there’s a difference between being a struggling artist, and running into obstacles. The former is a necessary part of the process of becoming successful, while the latter is more of an attitude towards any given difficult situation. “I haven’t really seen anything as an obstacle,” she admits, “I think obstacles are usually a result of the way you see things. Also, I really believe that you can’t be good at everything, so it’s best to focus on where your talents are until what comes easily to you becomes a struggle, because your right out on the edge of it.”
And as for the point of it all? “To make things: Art, children, love, buildings, music, friends…anything.” And we couldn’t think of a more beautiful life philosophy than that.