Three years ago, in the middle of a crowded local restaurant in Moscow, Stephen Wiltshire, a sixteen-year-old from London, stood up from his table and said in a halting voice, 'Yd geni.' His Russian as flawless: 'I am a genius.' And he had good reason to celebrate: he'd already published two books of drawings and was finishing up an international sketching tour for his third. In Venice he was called 'the reincarnation of Canaletto'; in Britain he was dubbed 'a child Picasso.' In unadorned medical terms, he is called autistic: psychological tests place his mental age at five or six.
Stephen's claim, 'Yd geni,' points to a compelling and curious quirk in this otherwise devastating syndrome: some ten percent of autistic children have isolated 'islands of ability' that make them outstanding in math or music or, like Stephen, in art. Out of what could have been the most circumscribed o lives, Stephen – with the help of his family, a perceptive headmistress, and an indefatigable literary agent – has created a remarkable body of work and captured the public's imagination. His fourth book, Stephen Wiltshire's American Dream, has just been released in England; he is regularly asked to work on commission (Barcelona's Gaudi Foundation and Toshiba are two patrons); and a retrospective of this work is now on view at the Building Centre in London.
A textbook case of childhood autism, Stephen was virtually mute easily enraged, and averse to physical contact. But at the Queensmill School in London, his gift became apparent. 'He was a classic unreachable child,' said headmistress Lorraine Cole. 'He didn't play, and had no interest in anything until he began to draw.' Appropriately, enough, the first word he ever said in school was 'paper.'
By the time he was twelve, Stephen was drawing complex sketches of buildings and cities from memory. He could look at a structure for a few minutes and then reproduce it accurately hours or days or weeks later. He finished a drawing of a Moscow department store in his hotel room, recreating the Cyrillic script for 'haberdasher' without error. When he draws, he looks 'just like a sewing machine,' said Hugh Casson, former president of the Royal Academy of Art. 'He embroiders all over the place.'
So far, no on completely understands Stephen's talent. His idiosyncrasies – the ways he hums, closes one eye, and wiggles his finger as he set to work – don't explain the mystery. He is purely self-taught; at his one and only art lesson, Stephen just smiled at the instructor's suggestions and went back to his own drawings. Nobody forced the issue. 'One doesn't want to interfere,' says Margaret Hewson, Stephen's Literary agent. 'Because we don't understand exactly what's happening, we have to be careful we don't kill it dead.'
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who wrote Awakenings, traveled extensively with Stephen and studied the young man for his forthcoming book on artists who have neurological disorders. 'There was some fear that [Stephen's] art would suffer if he learned to speak,' he told The New York Times last year, 'and that is simply not happening. I think his imagination and confidence are growing.'
Stephen's isolation shows signs of loosening its hold too. A small incident stands out, poignant and promising: Stephen and Lorraine Cole went for a walk in Amsterdam one evening with sketchpad and pen. A statue of a man reading a newspaper caught Stephen's eye, and he began to make a rare figure drawing. 'Dear little man,' he said as he stroked the statue. 'Dear little man.'