Thursday, April 26, 2012

DeNeen Brown Washington Post: Fascinated by the Idea of What it Means to be "Other"

Foreign No More Ping Chong Portrays the Immigrant Experience With Real People

By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Staff Writer

Vamos a empezar.

Bay dia se bat dau.


Sh ka tioban.

Let's get started. Please sit down.

The stage is black.

The voices are in color.

They speak, and you think you know who they are. Ninety minutes later, you realize that what you thought you knew was only a fraction of the truth, the for-colored-people-only truth. The voices don't fit in a box.

The people onstage are not actors. They are reading from scripts, but the scripts are not really scripts. The words are their own stories told with stage directions--their own lives, now on paper.


They are presenting their lives at Washington's GALA Hispanic Theatre in a revolutionary stage documentary called "Undesirable Elements" by New York playwright and director Ping Chong. Chong has dedicated himself to bringing real life to art. He travels the world, interviewing people and turning their lives into a stage production that explains what it feels like to be Other.

His only qualification in selecting his cast is that they be people who have moved from one culture to another, because it is in that transformation that lessons are learned. Cultural stereotypes are splattered. Differences become blended. The single, taut thread of humanity becomes tighter.

"We all have common human experiences," Chong says. "We all have to deal with life, death, war. Those common threads are fundamental facts of human existence: suffering and happiness."

Chong says he got the idea while teaching a theater course in the Netherlands in 1991. His students would have lunch together. "I thought: We are all from different places in the world. We are all doing something positive and creative, and we are not shooting each other. Can I do a show about people, with all their differences, sitting in the same room talking about joy?"

He was worried that "we were growing more insular from each other, a result of the Reagan era, when it became okay to be selfish, okay to be intolerant. People in America should have the right to have different opinions. When one group tries to clamp down on another group, that is fascism. Americans have forgotten what democracy is."

He debuted "Undesirable Elements" in 1992 in New York. For eight years, the idea has toured--to Cleveland, Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, Rotterdam and Tokyo, where in 1995 he received a Yumiuri Theatrical Award naming it one of the year's five best plays produced in Japan.

Two months ago, Chong came to Washington. He screened about 30 people and emerged with a cast of five. Chong and co-writer/director Michael Rohd figured out how their stories could be told dramatically. The piece was written as a series of journal entries read to an audience. The entries are woven together in a chronology.

"The stories are so rich, so fascinating, they beat what playwrights try to write," Rohd said. "When real life is woven into theater, you have the best of both worlds. You have truth and you have real life."


The five people performing their own lives on a black stage covered with white gravel take their cue offstage. They march in silence, forcefully, with direction, swirling around their half-moon pit. No expression. They step into the pit. The stones crunch under their feet. They take their seats.

They introduce themselves.

There is Marlene Calista Cooper, born in Monrovia, Liberia, two months premature.

Alida Yath, born in Alta Coban Verapaz, Guatemala. It was the dry season.

Arnoldo Ramos, born in San Jose, Costa Rica, in a taxi near a stop sign in front of a cathedral.

Dang Ngoc Hoa, known in this city as Sandy Dang, born in Hanoi with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

Eugenio Longoria, born in Brownsville, Tex., growing up skipping the border between Mexico and Texas, living in two worlds.


The people performing their own lives sit back in the hard black folding chairs on the stage that is black covered in white gravel. The scene behind them is a shimmery white moon, painted imperfectly on a black curtain. The people performing their own lives don't leave the stage again until you know them.

And you will know them. You will dig deep beneath the stereotypes of their cultures. You will live their births, their childhoods, the coup d'etat, the rapes, the poverty, the shoes so tattered that the nails patching them together make your toes bleed because you have to walk a mile from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. You will get slapped with the racism from the majority people and the racism from your own people because your skin is too light or too black, your eyes are too green, you are Chinese in Vietnam, you are white and Mexican. You will learn that to be poor is to be resourceful.

You will come to America and get fired from a bartending job at the elegant restaurant on the fifth floor of Garfinckel's because a newspaper columnist asks you for chilled white wine and you don't know what chilled white wine is so your co-worker puts ice cubes in the white wine and serves it to him. The columnist writes about it jokingly the next day. He does not know that his words will steal your paycheck.

Their stories swell. And as they speak, you listen and hear their histories from their perspectives. You heard something about the coup in Liberia. Wasn't that sometime in the 1970s? You heard about it. But it seemed so very far away. You don't know the story until Marlene, the Liberian American, tells you, from the inside out.

"One hundred thirty-three years of rule by a tiny elite of about 300 extended families descended primarily from freed slaves and free blacks comes to an end."

There is dancing in the streets. At noon soldiers enter her yard looking for her father. They fire guns over her head. They take her mother downstairs. Her mother fights. They tell her mother if she doesn't stop fighting, they will rape her daughters. The mother stops fighting. They rape the mother. Marlene is 9 years old.

Mexican nicknames: El Chivo, meaning the goat. El Canalero, meaning river man. El Verde, meaning the man with green eyes. El Guero, meaning a white-looking Mexican.

Vietnamese names: Tai, meaning greatness. Tuan, handsome. Minh, bright. My, beautiful.

Costa Rican nicknames: Indio, Negro, Pipo, Tico, Pepita. El Macho, the slang name for North Americans in Costa Rica: On one level, it means someone who is blond. On another, it means someone who comes and dominates you.

Liberian slang: Sweet Motha, refers to platform shoes or shoes no longer in style. Holy holy, a public bus. Where's my Christmas, meaning: Don't you have any money for me today? Play is play, and joke is joke, but sticking your finger in a blind man's eye is damned provoking. No translation necessary.


Chong is sitting in the hollow theater, directing the lives of the people who are reading their lives onstage. "Read it louder. Slow down. You told that story with more emotion. Now you are just reading it."

They are not professional actors. But there is power in their words because the words belong to them, these immigrants we think we know but we don't know.

You see a woman, a Chinese-Vietnamese community leader in Washington. She is sharp. She is an advocate. But did you know that when she was a child, her family built a bomb shelter under their home in Hanoi? Did you know that for 11 consecutive days, the United States rained bombs on her neighborhood? Did you know a bomb dropped 10 blocks from her house, wiping out the largest hospital in Hanoi?

"If the bombs had been just a little closer, I would not be here now."

She is reading the line. It is not made-up play drama. It is real.

What do you think of when you hear the words Costa Rica? Eco-tourism!

Arnoldo thinks of a haven, his parents, forgiveness and the essence of his being.

What do you think of when you hear the word Guatemala? The answers: poor, submissive, drunk, meek, illiterate.

Alida thinks of her mother, her father, her brother, her sister, a beautiful place, a culture she wants to save but is disappearing. She thinks of the scent of orange blossoms.

What do you think when you hear the word Vietnam?

People think War.

Sandy thinks, "My childhood . . . a guava tree, playing house under the shade of bamboo, of eating a breakfast of sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves."

What do you think when you hear the word Mexico?

People think cheap labor, Taco Bell, illegal immigrants, cheap vacations and exploited people.

Eugenio thinks of his flag, the scent of taquitos, papayas, churros, the smell of hard work. He hears his mother's voice singing his brothers to sleep.

What do you think of when you hear the word Liberia?

People wonder: Is that Russia? Isn't Gadhafi there? They think of bare-breasted women.

Marlene thinks of heat, red earth, salt air, mangoes, country chop, palm butter and rice, foo-foo, the song of the pepper bird.

She thinks of the silence of the dead.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

DeNeen Brown Washington Post: Margaret Atwood at Times Talks

Split Personality In Margaret Atwood Reside Both the 'Ordinary' Person and the Extraordinary Writer

By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Foreign Service


She slips into a local cafe like one of her characters -- a woman in a pastel purple print dress, porcelain bare arms and pastel purple hat. She looks almost translucent. She is alone. None of her characters is hiding in there. They have been left behind long ago in the pages of her books. She, the writer, does not bring them with her as much as her readers want her to.

Most of these characters -- memorable women on the verge of sanity, on the edge of nervous breakdowns -- came from her. But are not her. Not Elaine, the girl gasping for air in "Cat's Eye," who peeled her own skin; not Marian in "The Edible Woman," who thought she would be eaten; not Kat in "Hairball," who saved a tumor in a glass jar and placed it on a mantle; not Iris of "The Blind Assassin," whose sister, wearing white gloves, deliberately drove off a bridge.

Writing, Margaret Atwood has said, is something she does. Not something she is. "The mere act of writing splits the self in two," she says. There is the ordinary person, and then there is the "slippery double" who does the writing.

She is often reminded of this tortured duality by a clipping tacked to a bulletin board in her office, "Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate. . . ."

The famous, she notes in her latest book, "Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing," "are always shorter and older and more ordinary than you expected."

On this afternoon, the ordinary woman who has shown up happens to be Margaret Atwood, whose name is often printed three times bigger than the title on the covers of her books. The winner of the 2000 Booker Prize, she is one of Canada's foremost poets and novelists and has helped to show the world that this country is producing some of the best writing in modern times.

This is the woman who has helped to give Canada its voice and its identity. Yet, in this uncrowded cafe, no one seems to notice her, or maybe it is the Canadian way not to stare, to point and whisper that there sits Margaret Atwood.

Still, something about both her and her books makes the reader so curious about the origins of the characters and the plots, the passions or fears that lie beneath.

She sits behind a cup of coffee with milk. She is the regular person, the one who bakes great brownies, knits her grandbaby sweaters, invites lonely newcomers to dinner at her downtown home (because Toronto can be a closed place) and greets every guest at her Boxing Day party, where she and her partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, serve baked beans and ham. (Is that Michael Ondaatje standing in the corner? And who is that beautiful woman who looks like Atwood, who has flown in from Europe and is joking about milk and whiskey?)

You ask her, the writer who is sitting in the cafe, about confidence because you think she must be confident, more confident than many in the world who sit in rooms alone with words that multiply but never amount to anything.

"Confidence?" she repeats. "I don't know that I have any. I have the same list of paranoias that every other writer has as far as I can determine. 'It's no good! This is useless! I hate this!' It's the same blank sheet that everybody starts with."

That sheet, she has said, is "smooth, white and terrifyingly innocent. . . . White, because it's hot, it will burn out your optic nerves. Those who stare at the page too long go blind. . . . The page is a skin that can feel you touching it. Did you really think it would just be there and do nothing?"

Atwood's "Negotiating With the Dead" explores those pages, their written words and the writer's relationship with them.

She writes: "Let's say it's a book about the position the writer finds himself in; or herself, which is always a little different. It's the sort of book a person who's been laboring in word mines for, say, forty years -- by coincidence, roughly the time I myself have been doing this -- the book such a person might think of beginning, the day after he or she wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders what she's been up to all this time."

Or: "Perhaps I wish to say: Look behind you. You are not alone. Don't permit yourself to be ambushed. Watch out for the snakes. Watch out for the Zeitgeist -- it is not always your friend. Keats was not killed by a bad review. Get back on the horse that threw you. Advice for the innocent pilgrim, worthy enough, no doubt, but no doubt useless; dangers multiply by the hour, you never step into the same river twice, the vast empty spaces of the blank page appall, and everyone walks into the maze blindfolded."

Still, the readers keep asking such obtuse questions as: "Where does it come from?"

When she was a child, writing and art were not something people were absorbed with, she says. She was born in Ottawa in 1939, two months after World War II began. "People had other things on their mind and even if they hadn't, they wouldn't have been thinking about writers." She remembers once that a poet wrote a magazine article and titled it "Canadians Can Read, But Do They?"

Her father ran a forest-insect research station in Quebec, taught her entomology, and each spring, her parents would leave for the cold North and return to a different city each fall. The "landscape of the north" became her home town.

Often writers grow up with "books and solitude," Atwood says. In the North, there were no theaters and the radio did not work well, she says. All she had were books and time. She became a writer in a split minute of transformation. She remembers it was 1956. She was walking home from school, when a poem wrote itself in her head. Later, she wrote it down. "I didn't know that this poem of mine wasn't at all good, and if I had known, I probably wouldn't have cared," she writes. "It wasn't the result but the experience that had hooked me: it was the electricity. My transition from not being a writer to being one was instantaneous, like the change from docile bank clerk to fanged monster in 'B' movies."

Over the years, she has produced more than 37 volumes: poetry, children's books, fiction and nonfiction, including at least 10 novels and three short story collections. She has written in hotels, on airplanes, in the middle of the night. Ask her when she sleeps, and she says the most appropriate question is when she eats. It used to be that the best time for writing was the middle of the night, but lately getting up at that hour has become dangerous because stairs covered in night can trip up a writer.

Atwood has wondered: If she went blind would she be able to write? "Henry James apparently dictated his later novels, but I don't think I would be capable of doing that. I seem to have to be able to see them." Or what if something happened to her hands, would the black thread that spins the words stop coming? Writing, she says, is produced somehow by the connection between the brain and the hand. "It's not you sitting up in your brain directing your hand." The brain and hand are one.

Stories come to her, she says, dropping in like unexpected visitors. Sometimes there is not enough space for them, no rollaway beds to lie on while she finishes something else. "But they aren't always the right ones," she says. "They come and then some of them go. And the ones that stick around are usually the ones that you would think maybe a sane person should not endeavor to write," she says.

She is speaking of "The Handmaid's Tale," published in Canada in 1985, a futuristic novel about a dystopian society in which fertile women become handmaids for reproduction and are farmed out to have babies for barren couples.

The idea for "The Blind Assassin," a novel about the rise and fall of a Canadian family, began simply as a subject Atwood wanted to explore, that of a woman who had lived through the 20th century, watching the changes between 1901 and 2001. The book's main character, Iris, first appeared to Atwood carrying a container.

"So when I first started looking at her, she was dead and she had left behind the container, which was a hatbox, and somebody else was discovering her container and was finding out what was in it, which were some letters."

But that didn't work. So Atwood threw the woman and the container out. The next time the woman appeared to her, she was alive. "But she was being discovered by two other people who were younger than she, and she had a container, which was a suitcase and in the container there was a photograph album," Atwood recalls. "That didn't work, either. But one of the photographs survived." Then the two young discoverers started having an affair "and he was married with baby twins."

The characters took over the life of the old woman. So Atwood "put them in a drawer."

"Maybe they are carrying on in there. I don't know. The twins were very cute and it was sad to give them up, but there you are."

As soon as those characters were put away, "the old lady moved to the first person and began speaking herself. Once she began speaking herself, then it was all right."

"The only way you can write the truth," Atwood writes in "The Blind Assassin," "is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person and not even by yourself at some later date, otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it."

There is nothing mystical about her own hands, except when you look at the early drafts of her novels that are saved in the rare book library at the University of Toronto. And you see that she starts her novels on lined paper in spiral notebooks. There are certain pages where the handwriting seems to have gotten faster and faster and becomes more and more illegible as if the hands were simply trying to keep up with the story that is spilling onto the page.

"Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space," she has written in black ink. The words are in cursive, written quickly. JT, she has written then scratched it quickly. She picks up. "Space is curved and so time must be curved also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in it [she scratches out 'it,' replaces it with time, then scratches out that, too] it and exist in two places at once."

In some ways, it seems sneaky to be here in this library, looking at these original versions. Her early thoughts are lying here with no one but the librarian to guard them. Here we find the many beginnings of her epics written in pencil, crayon, black and blue ink, roller pen. Typed and crossed out. Filled in the margins. Self-edited. Arrows and circles. And if you flip back far enough, there are pencil sketches of flowers, bulbs and roots and a mask of a beautiful woman crying. And here you pause, because this page reveals that this woman is not only an artist of words but one of pictures.

Later, the hand writes, "I chew the skin off from around my fingernails. Some things don't change." And there is something written in the margin. But it is illegible. Squint. Decipher. It is written quickly. It is probably a secret to the method but it can't be read. "What I am not afraid of, snakes, worms, toads, mice, rats, dogs, leeches, guns unattached to people, most men. What I am afraid of: thunderstorms, spiders, poisonous jellyfish, some men (megalomaniacs and psychopaths). Sharks. Large red tropical centipedes. Wimps: harmless-looking, but they can give you a vicious nip. This is how I would have described myself until a week ago. Now I would add to the last list: women."

It is hard to know where the fiction fuses itself with real life.

Atwood has been called a feminist who wrote a prototype feminist work, "The Edible Woman," published in 1969, long before people knew what category to put it in.

"Let's pretend that we're back in 1969 and that our very first book is being published and that we are in fact 29 years old and that we are treated like the most amazing freak that has ever appeared on the face of the Earth, because we are a young female person, before feminism has really hit -- or about the moment when people have figured out that it has hit but other people don't know that, and some of the questions that would be asked are now pretty far beyond belief," she is explaining. "So those were the kinds of fools that I didn't suffer gladly, but if somebody asks a naive question in all good faith, my attitude was there are no stupid questions. There are only stupid answers. But there's a difference between that and outright aggression . . . which I certainly got a big dose of in my earlier years."

She lives by a general rule. "I never kick anybody in the knee first. I haven't. Never. But if they start. . . . Why stick around for it, why stick around for abuse?"

Atwood says she can usually tell when an interviewer is hostile, but some mask it. "The English are particularly good at concealing their hostility and then hammering you over the head with it when the interview actually comes out. But they've been quite nice to me lately."

That was before the Booker. "I think once I entered the old writer's category, they're rather fond of those. And it's true that younger women are more frightening to society at large than older ones," she says. "Because you don't know what they're going to do. Whereas with me, you have a fairly good idea because I've already done most of it."

She is an intensely private person. Some people know her but then they find that they don't really, even after reading two biographies about her, which she says she has not read. "I've looked at the pictures, though." She says if she started reading them, she would have to start correcting them. "And that way madness lies."

There are things people can't know about her and there are things she would never reveal. "You can't actually stop anybody from writing your biography. You can sue them if they are libelous once they've published it. But that is not the case with either of these biographies. I take it they're rather laudatory in possibly a somewhat more boring way than my life actually was or is, or was at the time," she says. "It's not that I'm a monster or perverse, but why would I tell private things to those people?"

So people try to write her into one of her many characters or a composite of them. They want to believe they know her. She has been sitting on their shelves and nightstands for all this time. Thirty-seven volumes of her.

Some people have called her prolific. She says she is not. "I'm old. If you take the number of years I've been writing, say from the age of 16 up until the age of 61 -- which I am now, 61 minus 16 is 45. So 45 years of writing. Then take the number of books I've actually published, and then count only half a point for the short ones. I'm not as prolific as you think. Ten novels over 45 years is pretty slow. Joyce Carol Oates is my standard. . . . That's prolific. I'm average."

Not really average. Atwood, who is now 62, is considered the major Canadian writer. Still last year, when she won the 2000 Booker Prize for Fiction, she was surprised.

Her reaction as she sat in the audience: "Surprise, A. B -- my feet were killing me because I made the mistake of buying new shoes. They're very nice. But it was the first time I had worn them, so that rather limping walk up to the podium was entirely genuine. Serves me right. Vanity. My outfit was black, so they were black but with sequins on them."

She was surprised because an English friend of hers kept telling her she didn't think this would be Atwood's year. "And since I'm a gullible person and very innocent and always do what people tell me, I actually believed her."

So Atwood was sitting there having a fine time when they announced she was the winner. "I hadn't put fresh lipstick on or anything, as you might do if you thought you might win it. So I was actually quite genuinely surprised. Nor had I prepared remarks. . . . So I had to improvise. And there are some pictures of me that look as if I am on some very strange drug. Because you walk backstage and there are all these people with flash cameras, so you're basically looking pretty much like an owl in headlights."

But that may not have been the writer they captured. Most likely it was her ordinary double.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

DeNeen Brown Washington Post: Art in the Eye of a Needle

From a belittling time, micro-sculptor creates works that resonate with a power most disproportionate

By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, December 3, 2009

They say it's not the story that intrigues us so much as the storyteller.

Willard Wigan, 52, a famous micro-sculptor, is telling his story to an audience at Prince George's Community College, explaining how he began creating art so tiny that it fits in the eyes of needles.

It began, he says, with his teacher in a classroom in England, when Wigan was 5 years old. The teacher holds her nose high in the air and speaks with the crispness of the king's English:

"Where is the little colored boy today? Yes, of course, there you are. Come here."

The boy wants to vanish. Instead he follows the teacher's instruction and goes to the front of the class. The teacher gives him a piece of chalk and tells him to write, but he cannot because he has dyslexia, a learning disability that his school in England in the 1960s had not recognized.

The teacher spins the little boy to face his classmates and announces: "Willard is an example of failure."

The boy wants to become smaller before his classmates, retreating within himself until they can no longer see him.

"Nothing," the teacher announces in a tinny voice. "Nothing is what this boy will become."

The boy hates school. And absconds. That's the word he uses. "I absconded."

His mother finds him hiding in the shed behind his home in Birmingham, where he was the middle child of five children.

"What are you doing here?" his mother asks in her strong Jamaican accent, not yet diminished by her life in England.

Her son, who is only 5, can't find the words to articulate his humiliation at school. He tells her he doesn't like school. She tells him he must go to school. He says he doesn't want to go to school. She tells him, if he doesn't go to school, she will drag him. She leaves him in the shed, staring at the ground. That is when he begins to notice small things. Before him crawls a trail of ants.

"I started to believe ants needed a place to live. I decided to make an apartment building and furniture for them, and a carousel out of splinters of wood." He put the edifice of splinters on a piece of cardboard with a dab of honey and the ants sought it out. "As a kid I lived in a fantasy world. I used to believe ants could talk. Not once did they say thank you."

He showed his work to his mother, who worked in a lock factory, and she told him to take it smaller. Each time he came to her, his mother would say: "Take it smaller. I can still see it," Wigan recalls. "She said your name will get bigger as your work gets smaller."

His father, a steelworker, "was a typical Jamaican man. If you asked him for a toy, he would give you cotton string and a wheel. If you did anything wrong, he would show you the switch."

Art under a microscope

Wigan is leaning on a lectern in an art gallery at the community college in Largo. He is uncomfortable. Admittedly shy. He is wearing a black suit, lavender shirt opened at the color. A diamond in his ear. He looks like one of those movie stars whose name you can't quite remember. A girl in the back whispers, "He has a British accent."

Tiny art is ancient, painted on grains of sand, carved into kernels of rice. Nanotechnology art, as Wigan's art has been called, is even smaller. (Nano means one-billionth of a part.) Nano art is about materials of dimensions so small they are often invisible to the naked eye.

Artist Cris Orfescu presents prints of microscopic images created by electrons of different materials: graphite nano particles; micro-flakes of oxy polyvinyl chloride; and mere dust particles. Another artist, Ghim Wei Ho, creates three-dimensional nano structures. Her gallery shows photos of "Nano trees," a "Nano sunflower," "Nano rings." Strange images as if they came from an abyss.

Wigan's art comes with his story, which he has told often to audiences who initially find it hard to believe what they see. It is incomprehensible to some that art so tiny was made by hands and not a machine.

Even as seen through the lens of a microscope, the work can appear impossible. How did Wigan make the Statue of Liberty from a fleck of gold? Sculpt the scene from the Mad Hatter's tea party sitting in a needle? Sculpt five cast members from "Star Wars"? There is the Obama family waving on election night -- all standing tiny in the eye of an ordinary sewing needle. As seen through the lens, the needle itself looks huge and rugged, almost as though it were a hollowed-out mountain.

All these tiny scenes and figures and more are in Wigan's collection, part of which will be on exhibit behind powerful microscopes at the Parish Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, until Jan. 23.

His art is constructed of fibers from his shirt or from a carpet, he says. He chisels with chips of diamonds. "The diamonds are like little bee stingers when I smash them. I find the sharpest one and I gradually cut away at the fibers to get the shape. If it doesn't look like what I am trying to create, I turn it into somebody else."

He says he paints with the hair of a dead fly. He steadies his body, slows his pulse and works between heartbeats. He says he has trained himself to slip into a meditative state and often wears only underwear when working in a small room in his studio in England. He works only at night, to avoid traffic vibrations.

He has trained himself to feel the pulse in his fingers. "I can feel it jerking," he says, extending a finger.

During the lecture, he calls a volunteer from the audience to demonstrate the steadiness of his hand. Wigan is stage right. The woman is stage left. He points his finger in front of a projector casting shadows on a white screen. She extends her finger. Seconds go by and her hand, though she is trying to hold it steady, seems to be jumping up and down. Wigan's hand seems not to have moved at all.

Wigan says he must be careful not to breathe too deeply. A wrong move can mean destruction.

"Once, I inhaled Alice in Wonderland."

A defense of small things

His work is a glass menagerie of fragile things. To this reporter, who is not a critic, it gives the impression of otherworldliness, an attempt to escape a reality. And yet if you look closely, the tiny figures reveal a more penetrating expression of the way things would look if you were observing from a great distance, as though you were hovering above, godlike, looking down on little creatures.

Art critics on the whole do not seem to know what to make of Wigan's work, says Jeffry Cudlin, a curator, art critic and the director of exhibitions for the Arlington Arts Center. Cudlin says when he was researching Wigan, he found no formal critiques of Wigan's work.

"There seems to be nothing about the quality of what he does other than to say, 'Holy cow! This guy is making pieces that fit on the head of a pin,' " Cudlin says. "There is no attempt to talk about it other than as a phenomenon, an unlikely thing brought into the world."

"Here you have work that can only be seen removed, through magnification," Cudlin adds. "There is some layer of distance between you and the thing you are seeing. Here is art that only the creator is seeing firsthand. Everybody else has to see it through a medium. It is almost unavailable for critique because you can't see it with the naked eye."

Still, Wigan's micro-sculptures have a deep-pocketed following. In May 2007, British tycoon David Lloyd bought 70 pieces of Wigan's collection for about $22 million. Prince Charles owns one of his sculptures, as does Elton John and the Marquess of Bath. The queen of England has given him an award and praise, and there is a documentary being made about him by German filmmakers. Scientists everywhere are intrigued. Perhaps, they say, Wigan's method could help in surgeries.

Wigan's view of his art is loftier. It is a defense of small things, he says. "It is showing people what they can overcome."

"I heard someone say that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven," he says. "I decided to sculpt camels in a needle."

He seems to enjoy teasing his audience from the podium. And yet at points he appears about to cry while telling his story.

Someone asks whether he ever heard from his teacher, the one who told him he would be nothing. He says he hasn't, but he now credits her.

"That teacher made it bad for me. I will have to thank her. She was a cruel woman. I was told I would become nothing. Now I am showing people how big nothing is."