Ravens, wolves, horses and the occasional portrait of Nick Cave populate Anna-Wili Highfield‘s somewhat haunting portfolio. Chances are you’ve seen her work. She created the masks worn by New Zealand music duo Broods on their debut album cover, and her ghostly Pegasus sculptures adorned Hermès‘ flagship Melbourne store windows. We caught up with Anna-Wili to find out what led her to become one of Australia’s most talked about sculptors.
As the daughter of a puppeteer, we’ve got to ask, were you terrorised by scary puppets as a child?
Funny, I wasn’t scared but I remember a puppet with fish net stockings who had a little cat Velcro’d between her legs. I’d take the pussycat off to lovingly pat it each day before returning it under her skirt.
Your career began with a role as scenic artist for Opera Australia. What prompted the shift from stage to sculptures?
I took a break from the Opera to have my daughter and then started making sculptures. I never went back. I think that my dad’s puppetry, art school and theatre all informed me. I try to capture the living thing in a creature and that would have something to do with growing up with puppets and theatre.
Your works are stitched together from archival cotton rag. Why do you like working with this (no doubt, rather fiddly) material?
It’s not fiddly. There’s something really immediate about it that I like. It can be angled and stitched and in moments a form appears. I tear it apart and build it back up and I never have to wait for it to catch up.
We’re guessing you’re a lover of all things fauna, but what was it about that very first “fairy wren” sculpture of yours that cemented animals as your subjects?
I’m not sure that it was the fairy wren that did it especially but I think it has something to do with finding a spirit in an animal that I can relate to. I’m a figurative artist and a portraitist, but there is something too subjective about humans for me. I like the impersonal nature of wildlife, their strangeness somehow makes them easier to connect with. But I have drawn Nick Cave portraits at times. Animals and Nick Cave, that’s it.
Can you tell us about your involvement with Voiceless, the non-profit organisation working for animal protection?
This is something I care about. I admire the way Voiceless work to strengthen legislation against animal cruelty. They are doing good things. The awful treatment of animals in factory farming is so often overlooked and is supported by ambivalent choices we make every day. I made a kangaroo to be auctioned to show my support.
Hermès commissioned you to create a sculptural work to celebrate the opening of their new Melbourne store. How did you approach this project?
Hermès came to me with the idea of a Pegasus (their motif) and the theme of metamorphosis. I had made two Pegasus for Hermes a few years ago. This one felt like the evolution of the first. I paired the form back, deconstructing the the body into suggestions of parts. It turned out to be a point of metamorphosis for my work to come.
And just for fun, if you could be any animal, which would you be and why?
A Raven. They are beautiful, smart, and playful with a moan instead of a song. I find them glamorous in a funny way. They strut in black satin whilst picking from bins.
Anna-Wili is speaking at this year’s Semi-Permanent Sydney event. Find out more here.