Drawing of professional standard, but otherwise incapable of leading a normal life and virtually speechless.
Stephen Wiltshire has been the subject of numerous documentaries and one man exhibitions since his discovery in the 1980's when he was nine.
Stephen is an autistic savant whose gifts include the ability to retain virtual photographic memory recall of people and places, this enables him to draw, with near perfect accuracy, representations of city skylines and architectural scenes.
Stephen likes to work both on small and large scale, some of these extraordinary drawings measure over 9ft in length, others such as on this webpage are much smaller, and somehow more intimate.
However all possess his astonishing virtuoso draughtsmanship skills.
Sacks has also, most interestingly, written on autistic artists, people like Stephen Wiltshire and Jessy Park, who despite their low IQs, showed amazing savant talents in painting and drawing at early ages. In these writings, Sacks provokes interesting questions about the nature of creativity and art. For example, the work of Park and Wiltshire is impressive by any measure: But it is not, one can argue, “creative” in the strictest sense. The work of the autistic artist seems automatic in some ways, like the Rain Man and his extraordinary computational skills. It's not so much a creation as it is a recording, a snapshot from the autistic perspective.
Still, it is hard not to be struck by the enormous talent of these artists, and when one sees the surreal colors used in the architectural or meteorological paintings of Jessy Park, one gets the sense that definite aesthetic choices are being made. With this in mind, I ask Dr. Sacks during a recent phone interview if he feels that the aesthetic choices these autistic artists make can be considered a kind of creativity.
“I sort of hovered on this question, of course, all the while with Stephen (Wiltshire),” Sacks says, referring to his case study “Prodigies” from Anthropologist on Mars. “And I hovered on it just last night when I went to a beautiful art exhibit by an autistic artist called Jessy Park. Her mother has just written an astonishing book about her called Exiting Nirvana (for which Sacks wrote the introduction). In general, my feeling is that the savant gifts may be extraordinary and ingenious and even prodigious, but that they may not develop in an organic way. They may remain unconnected sometimes with a person's personality and intellect and also with cultural influences. … My general feeling is that extraordinary talent alone, although it may be a prerequisite for creativity, does not, in itself necessarily constitute creativity.”
Since Sacks will be speaking on “Creativity in the Brain,” I ask him about the root of creativity. Is it, I wonder, a purely neurological phenomenon, or does he as a neurologist allow for those traditions which attribute creativity to divine inspiration.
“Well, as an old Jewish atheist, I'm no believer in the divine,” Sacks says. “Although having said that, I really think of Mozart as divine.”
Not surprisingly, Sacks attributes both internal and external factors to creativity: There are, he says, biological factors which dispose one to creativity and cultural factors that encourage or inhibit it.
“For example, I think it's quite absurd to say that Einstein's extra-parietal lobule made him Einstein or can account for his work,” Sacks observes. “It may have been necessary, but it certainly wasn't sufficient. I think one also has to look at the historical context of his life and everything to begin to get an adequate account. Although in some sense, I think one can never quite get an adequate account. Freud always used to say that analysis lays down its arms before art, and I think that neurology also lays down its arms before creativity in a way. But certainly it's a hot subject.”
I had been particularly fascinated by Sacks' writing on Stephen Wiltshire and wanted to get an update on the talented autistic artist. When we last left Stephen in Anthropologist on Mars, he was drawing landscapes and capturing buildings and other landmarks in stunning detail and sophisticated perspective. He had also begun to show a knack for music, a more common talent to autistic persons. But that was back in 1995 when Stephen was in his early teens. I wondered how Stephen, now a young adult, had progressed as an artist and as an individual with autism.
“I saw Stephen a few months ago,” Sacks says. “He continues to be very active, doing all sorts of drawings. He's been to art school. He's picked up many new techniques. He does beautiful things in color now. He mostly drew when I saw him, but he paints a good deal now. And he does fabulous sort of simulations of Vermeer. I don't want to call them forgeries, and of course there is no intention to deceive, but he really does have an uncanny ability to sort of catch what's going on in great artists. Though to what extent he appreciates them and to what extent he has somehow divined some of the technical tricks – or imitated them, – I don't know.
“However, he has remained completely uninfluenced by anyone or anything at art school,” Sacks continues, “which is probably a good thing, and what one would expect. So he continues doing the sort of work which he's done since he was 6, but with more technical resources, more sophistication. But it's not essentially different. Now he, himself, has become fairly sociable and verbal, and he functions much better, although I don't think that he would ever be able to live alone.”