Honour for autistic man who speaks through art
Wednesday 04 January 2006
For most artists, being appointed an MBE in the New Year Honours List would be a moment, at the very least, of pleasure at being officially applauded by the establishment.
But in the case of Stephen Wiltshire, the moment was somewhat anticlimactic. "I don't think it really made much impression on him, probably because we interrupted him in the middle of watching the television,'' his older sister, Annette, disclosed. "The rest of us in the family were, of course, ecstatic.''
That is because Wiltshire, 31, suffers from autism, an inability to interact with the outside world by conventional means. But that has not stopped him from becoming one of the country's most successful, but paradoxically least well-known, artists. Significantly, his citation reads: "For services to art' - there is no mention of his disability. And despite his nonchalance at the award, he will be going to Buckingham Palace to receive his gong accompanied, by his mother, Geneva, and other members of his family, who have cared for him all his life.
As an autistic savant, he is one of the 10 per cent of autism sufferers who also have extraordinary abilities, such as powers of memory, mathematical calculation or musical and artistic talents. Wiltshire's speciality is intricate and fantastically detailed drawings of buildings and cityscapes, which has earned him a large following, packed out exhibitions and led to bestselling books. His prints sell for several hundred pounds each via his website.
Yet his success has provoked a debate within the art world that mirrors that over the artist Jack Vettriano as to whether his work really qualifies as "art", or is simply a stylised copying.
Dr Oliver Sacks, the renowned psychologist, summed up the issue when he described Wiltshire in his 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars: "I thought how unlike a Xerox machine he was. His pictures in no sense resembled copies or photographs, something mechanical and impersonal - there were always additions, subtractions, revisions, and, of course, Stephen's unmistakable style ... Stephen's drawings were individual constructions, but could they be seen, in a deeper sense, as creations?''
And now, some have used his award as a stick with which to beat contemporary British artists such as Damien Hirst. "At last,'' said the Daily Mail yesterday, "an artist [underlined] who deserves an honour.''
Karen Wright, editor of Modern Painters magazine, said it was wrong to adopt either view. "I wish people would not use him as a means to justify criticism of Damien Hirst and others. There is room enough for everyone and his is a voice that will be heard by those who perhaps do not wish to hear that of Hirst. But that doesn't mean they both cannot exist.''
She said she believed Wiltshire was a better artist than Vettriano. "I think it is very interesting. There is definitely a voice there, a talent which stands on its own, irrespective of his disability," she said.
It was particularly interesting, she added, that during his period at the City and Guilds Art School in south London, where he has been a student for the past four years, he had retained his own style, rather than be tempted by others.
Wiltshire's life now, which recently included a trip to Hong Kong on a private commission, is a far cry from his earlier years. Born into a family of West Indian origin in north London, he spent his childhood locked in his own private world, unable to communicate with others. His condition became worse after the death of his father when he was just three years old.
Despite the success, his life remains constrained. "While he is very independent and sociable, he still needs to have the reassurance that one of his family is around," said his sister.
He is not just a remarkable artist. A piano player for 10 years, Wiltshire also has a pitch-perfect voiceand sings everything from opera to Elvis. His sister said: "He surprises us all the time over the way he is developing. When people ask me what Stephen can do next, all I say is 'watch this space'.''
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