I have wanted to write about this subject for a while now, ever since I first received a wall calendar of a certain artist’s work as a Christmas present over two years ago. Since then, I have been lucky enough to see this artist’s work in person at the Paris Outsider Art Fair in 2015, and have now purchased another calendar, four notepads and a book. The artist is Gregory Blackstock, a ‘savant’ with a gift for drawing.
This post will focus on the phenomenon that is the ‘savant’ artist. The term savant is most commonly used to describe someone with a developmental disability (for example autism) who demonstrates extraordinary abilities. Savants like Blackstock have long been considered within the outsider art bracket, and have been represented in various exhibitions on the subject, including the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Alternative Guide to the Universe’ in 2013.
The most famous savant outside of the art world is likely to be Kim Peek, who inspired the film Rain Man, which in turn raised awareness of ‘autistic savants’ – or people with extraordinary abilities. Peek’s extensive knowledge library included world and American history, people and leaders, geography, sport, movies, the Bible, calendar calculations, telephone area codes and Shakespeare. Although there are many savants who do not express their abilities creatively, there are a huge number who do. The Wisconsin Medical Society dedicates a whole page to Artistic Autistic Savants, noting that “to many of the artistic savants, it is their release – their escape – their way to fit into a noisy and disordered world. Their way to connect with the people around them. They create and they perform because they are compelled to by the forces that make them unique, but they also do so because it brings them tremendous joy.”
In this post, I want to outline the work of four ‘Artistic Autistic Savants’; Gregory Blackstock (b. 1946), George Widener (b. 1962), James Henry Pullen (1835 – 1916), and Esther Brokaw (b. 1960). The work of all four is exceptional in its accuracy, whether that be in the representation of historical facts and dates, lists of obscure animals, hand-carved ships, or the leaves of a tree.
In his book ‘Outsider Art and the Autistic Creator’, Roger Cardinal writes about Blackstock’s outstanding ability to regurgitate thousands of facts, images, numbers, and languages from memory – he can even recite the names of all of the children from his schooldays.
Darold A. Treffert, in his foreword for ‘Blackstock’s Collections’, writes that “Blackstock shows those characteristic traits that constitute Savant Syndrome: an extraordinary skill coupled with outstanding memory grafted onto some underlying disability. But while all savants have that basic matrix, each savant is also unique, and that certainly is the case with Blackstock. First of all, his meticulously drawn lists of all sorts of items are , as an artistic format, inimitable. Second, most savants have skills in only one area of expertise, such as art, music, or mathematics – spectacular as those skills might be. But Blackstock has several areas of special skills, a somewhat unusual circumstance among savants.”
The depths of Blackstock’s knowledge and memory is really quite something. So vast and varied is it, the illustrated guide to his work, ‘Blackstock Collections,’ sees it imperative to categorise such a huge number of works under different headings – ‘Fish I like,’ ‘The Tools,’ ‘Architectural Collection,’ ‘ The Noisemakers,’ ‘Our Famous Birds.’ This way, we are able to make better sense of this one man’s awe-inspiring encyclopedic knowledge.
George Widener, another – equally prolific – savant, was represented in the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Alternative Guide to the Universe.’ Widener’s brain has been proven to function like a super-calculator; allowing him to process information in a wholly different way to the majority of people. His favoured method of communication is the calendar format. His calendars help him to consider time and space in a linear pattern, and they often refer to historical events – like the sinking of the Titanic, but they can also be made up of registration plates or telephone numbers.
More of a craftsman than an artist per se, James Henry Pullen carved and built ships inspired by his childhood fascination with watching his peers play with toy boats in little puddles. During his lifetime, Pullen became incredibly skilled in his making of these ships, reproducing them in pencil drawings, earning himself the title of ‘the Genius of Earlswood Asylum.' He even attracted the attention of King Edward VII, who began sending him tusks of ivory to work with, and Sir Edward Landseer, who sent him engravings of his work to copy.
Esther Brokaw’s early interest in art was encouraged by her Aunt Lois, who took her to visit galleries and bought her art materials during her youth. For forty-four years of her life, Brokaw went undiagnosed. It was only in 2004 that her diagnosis helped her to understand her equal obsessions with painting and stock market charts. Brokaw paints in acrylic, watercolour and oil from photographs she has taken herself. She is renowned for her immaculate detail when it comes to depicting every leaf on a tree, or every beam of light cast down from the sky.
The above artists are just four examples of the incredible ability of people we call ‘savants.’ The Wisconsin Medical Society, which I have utilised heavily for this post, has a more inclusive list of savants – both artistic and non-artistic.
Despite its association – for me anyway – with religion and spirituality, the term savant is a celebration of unparalleled ability amongst people who have been diagnosed as having a form of ‘disability.’ The awe-inspiring memory and inimitable attention to fact and detail is a testament to human skill and creativity. The fact that many savants choose creative methods to express their extraordinary knowledge is also testament to the power of creativity. The power it has as a vessel for sharing and expression, and the power it has to raise awareness of the uniqueness of the human condition.
 Roger Cardinal, Outsider Art and the autistic creator, 2009 (available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677583/)
 Blackstock’s Collections (2006), p10