The human spirit has the remarkable ability to adapt. This indomitable adaptation can take on some serious challenges with remarkable and sometimes shocking results. It’s not too uncommon to hear that somebody who is paralyzed has come to enjoy their life better after the accident that took their mobility away, or another has come to see the world in a completely different light after a tragic loss. No matter what the story, there seems to be a common thread — people often springboard off of unfortunate circumstances to glory, turning their negative experiences or outcomes into the the most positive thing about them. And for Stephen Wiltshire, his power lies in his autism.
Autism And The Discovery Of Paper
Stephen Wiltshire was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, the same year his father died in a motorcycle accident. Communicating with the young Stephen was difficult because he did not speak until the age of five when he first attended the Queensmill School in London, the city of his birth.
His teachers quickly noticed his penchant for two-dimensional art at the early age of five. He began to draw American cars and animals in fantastic detail. Stephen’s obsession and hidden talents have led to his encyclopedic knowledge of American cars. It is said that he can draw hundreds of American Classic cars including each of their unique features and look, all from scratch and only from memory.
In order to persuade Stephen to speak for the first time, teachers took away his drawing materials. At first, the little artist pointed and made noises in order to get his favorite pencil and paper back. But, eventually he spoke. “Paper” was his first word. And it couldn’t be more fitting.
When The Prime Minister Commissions You For Your First Piece Of Work
Stephen’s ability to draw progressed tremendously after the stunning development of his first word. His drawings were gaining a ton of attention and when he was just seven years old, he was commissioned for his first piece of artwork. But, this wasn’t just for a family friend or a teacher at school. At just seven years young, Stephen was commissioned by Prime Minister, Edward Heath to sketch the one and only, Salisbury Cathedral.
This vaulted Stephen to his next great work of London landmarks. At the age of 10, he took his newfound knowledge of written language and applied each shape of a letter to different pieces of British architecture, calling the book of drawings “London Alphabet”.
The Calm Eye In The Center Of The Fame Storm
Word of Stephen’s artistic ability began to spread, even across oceans. In 1988, CBS news sent a crew to catch up with the young Stephen in Paris as he drew a famous cathedral live on camera. With fine pencil and art paper, he sketched out even the most intricate detail etched into the building. When the reporter asked him how much the drawing would cost, Stephen replied enthusiastically — “1 million!”
One of the most amazing and endearing things about Stephen is his ability to ignore the ramifications of his fame. He comes off as a guy who truly enjoys drawing. Everything else comes second. He does not out of his way to promote his work or brag about himself. He simply puts his head down, draws his favorite images to the best of his ability and then puts on a very big smile when everybody enjoys his work. His authenticity radiates.
Stephen’s Most Impressive Works
Stephen would eventually graduate from City and Guilds of London Art School in Kennington, Lambeth, South London. Quietly, he published a series of books including Drawings (1987), Cities (1989), and Stephen Wiltshire’s American Dream (1993). He even cracked the Sunday Times bestseller list with 1991’s Floating Cities. But it was his remarkable ability to make massive detailed drawings that really put his work on the map.
It began with a simple helicopter ride around his home city of London. London is known for its incredibly difficult streets — a spaghetti maze of one-ways and roundabouts. One of the oldest cities, London boasts buildings both new and old scattered across the landscape like a patchwork quilt. In fact, London is so difficult to get around in that taxicab drivers must go through an exhaustive education in order to get their cab drivers license.
Stephen Wiltshire soaked up all of this information from the window of the helicopter and drew a large scale drawing of the four square miles of London to astonishing accuracy. He did not use any pictures, only his memory, and he re-created every window, every tree, every winding Street and River to picturesque perfection. This jaw-dropping ability to photographically remember detail on a massive scale gathered him worldwide acclaim.
Re-create Cities From Memory
Stephen took his show on the road. In 2005, he created an almost 33-foot-long drawing of the city of Tokyo. It took him seven days and it was re-created from a helicopter ride over the city. He did the same for Rome, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Madrid, Dubai, Jerusalem and London. And he saved his best for last, re-creating the New York City skyline in October 2009 on an 18 foot canvas after a 20 minute helicopter flight. That work now hangs in JFK Airport.
And that’s the stunning strength iu Stephen’s work. When you and I would be in a helicopter over New York City, we would likely focus on major buildings — the Empire State building, the Chrysler building and the Freedom Tower. But Stephen’s autism leads him to see the details — the sculptures in the concrete, the window dressings, the yellow cabs flickering about the streets, and the spatial relationships between each of these anomalies.
Simply by focusing on the details that only he sees, Stephen is able to bring his visions to life with just a fine pencil and paper. He does not even work like a classically trained artist. He does not roughly sketch out scale or put his drawings on a grid for perfect perspective. He simply sits down in front of a massive canvas and begins to draw everything in perfect perspective. The very thing that makes it difficult for him to communicate is the very thing he uses to make powerful, world-famous images. It’s pretty apparent that Stephen has adapted quite well.