Savant Artist (by Eileen D.)

George Widener - Map 3

“Map 3” by George Widener from the satellite map series

The definition of a savant is someone who displays exceptional abilities in subjects such as music or mathematics despite being challenged by a disorder such as autism or mental retardation. Those exceptional abilities are sometimes referred to as ‘islands of genius’. Darold Treffert, an expert on prodigious savants quoted in an article in the alumni magazine “On Wisconsin”, calls it “a jarring juxtaposition of ability and inability in the same person.”

Current theory about savant syndrome is that when part of the brain’s left hemisphere (language, comprehension, and logical thinking) is damaged, areas of the right (creativity, art and music) attempt to compensate, possibly even overdeveloping the brain’s nerve cells. We are not born with ‘blank slates’ for brains but come prewired, and lose some of that literally inborn knowledge as we mature and learn. As Treffert explains, math geniuses and savants, such as the ones who can easily and quickly tell you on which day of the week April 30 in the year 20,304 falls, actually use a preconscious process with more primitive brain circuitry; the rest of us routinely use left-brain higher-level circuitry. It’s as though the savant (and some geniuses) comes preprogrammed with a math module — a more instinctual part of the brain. That ‘module’ may work like ‘parallel computing’ — many concurrent computations making finding the answer lightning fast, as opposed to sequential, logical computing.

One of the savant artists mentioned in the “On Wisconsin” article is George Widener, who was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1962.

“He showed clear signs of autism as well as giftedness as a child. However a combination of growing up in a poor, multi-racial Appalachian family and the public lack of understanding of autism (in this case high-functioning autism known as Asperger’s Disorder) in the 1960’s allowed him to remain undiagnosed until he was into adulthood. As a result, George spent years living hand to mouth, often working ‘day labor’ jobs and staying in homeless shelters. He also spent his time in libraries reading and making his drawings. George has thousands of specific historical trivia and facts in his memory, often strange and even tragic details which he finds obsessively fascinating.” (from

From the site:

George has drawn all his life and his early artwork was of a more stereotyped savant style, a sort of recording of something he was looking at or had seen in the past. He drew landscapes and portraits. His very talented draughtsmanship gives him a range of technical abilities. He has had to work to overcome his literal nature and visual memory to create original artwork. George’s emergence as an expressive, original artist came as he began to place his revered numbers, calculations, calendars, facts, machine parts, and letters into works on found paper, often napkins.

One of Widener’s “satellite maps” (or a map to hell) is at the top of this blog entry, with a link to others in the series. The satellite maps seem to be the most abstract of his work. I could not find a description as to the medium or size of these pieces.

The megalopolis drawings showcase his prodigious drawing talent. Two of his landscapes, “Untitled 1” and “Megalopolis 21”, are below; he apparently often uses ink on found paper such as napkins.

George Widener - Untitled 1

George Widener - Megalopolis 21

The calendar and machine parts series may be interesting, involving his obvious fascination with numbers, but I question whether they should be classified as “art”. Mathematical artifacts, perhaps? A description of his unique blending of calendar dates with magic squares is at the bottom of this web page. “Portrait of Sarah” is below.

George Widener - Portrait of Sarah

From the website Henry Boxer Gallery – Outsider Artists:
“In 2005 Professor Roger Cardinal’s article ‘The Calendars of George Widener’ was featured in Raw Vision magazine (issue #51) and the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith proclaimed that the artist was ‘One of the Outsider Art Fair’s most significant recent discoveries…’ A one hour documentary is currently being made about George Widener for American and British television, this is expected to be completed late 2006.” [though Google showed no reference to it]

2 Responses to “Savant Artist (by Eileen D.)”

  1. 1 terry grant July 1, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks for posting this. Utterly fascinating. I would definitely categorize his calendars and machinery pieces as art–very thought-provoking and obsessive in their detail. The whole subject of savants is really interesting to me–so inexplicable-the damage to left brain may be a cause, but it certainly does not, to me, explain such ability as a result. It seems nearly miraculous.

  2. 2 clairan July 1, 2007 at 9:35 am

    Wow, Eileen. This is fascinating. The abstraction of Map 3 and the Calendar with the non-sequential writing are brilliant pieces. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I’ll be looking for that documentary.

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