As a child, famous architectural artist Stephen Wiltshire, did not speak. His diagnosis of autism was accompanied by a lack of language but an incredible talent for art. His instructors at the Queensmill School noticed his love of drawing and used art supplies as tools to allow him to speak. His first word, at the age of five, was “paper.” Wiltshire's talent was quickly recognized and cultivated. At the age of eight, Wiltshire received his first commission from the British Prime Minister to make a drawing of the Salisbury Cathedral. From there, he would go on to visit cities all over the world, strike up a lifelong friendship with Oliver Sacks, become the subject of multiple documentaries, and publish books filled with his drawings.
Now, Wiltshire is a world-renowned artist and has received the MBE, an order of chivalry granted to British citizens by the reigning monarch for their contributions to the arts or science. He is known for his ability to reproduce entire cityscapes and landmarks from memory. One of his most famous works is a five-meter-long canvas of the entire New York cityscape drawn from memory after a helicopter tour of the city he considers his “spiritual home.” These drawings demonstrate his ability to capture methodically and with precise detail the shapes of buildings, their positions in relation to one another, and even the number of windows, doors, and chimneys.
With regard to his creative process, it’s difficult to describe how he makes these architectural drawings beyond saying that he does it from memory. Wiltshire will spend time looking at a particular building or scene, occasionally make quick sketches, and move quickly to the canvas to recreate everything he has seen. As mentioned, his memory is incredibly precise. He is able to look at a particular building and automatically count how many floors, windows, doors, etc. the building has. When he describes this, it seems to him that this is the most natural way to think. It is difficult to conceive of a different way to take in the world. This relates to Oliver Sacks’ article about autism and creativity. In it, he describes the experience of Temple Grandin, a famous autistic author and professor of Animal Science. She, like Wiltshire, is a visualizer. She can focus and imagine how livestock can be prepared for slaughter and can internalize the experience of these animals. Moreover, Grandin has a hard time understanding how people don’t think like this. For both Grandin and Wiltshire, the intense visual memory that comes with their particular experiences of autism helps them to achieve incredible creativity in their vastly different fields.
As Wiltshire continues his illustrious career as an artist, the world has a chance to better understand mental health and creativity. His story is an example of resources and well-trained teachers allowing an autistic person's natural talent to thrive. As our society continues to grapple with issues of mental health and the spectrum of autism, we can look at Wiltshire and his beautiful works of art as inspiration and motivation to continue working for better understanding and accessibility.
"An Anthropologist on Mars," Oliver Sacks
"Stephen Wiltshire - The Human Camera" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcX-Nvm-wmE&t=252s