A Chance to See New Worlds : His Ability to Draw Canals, Castles From Memory Has Given a 17-Year-Old With Autism Hope for a Better Life

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Gritten is a London-based writer.

Stephen Wiltshire places a drawing pad on the arm of a sofa, and begins to sketch, deep in thought and immune from distraction. He has been asked to draw any building he remembers from a recent visit to Los Angeles and he embarks upon his task enthusiastically.

After only four minutes he holds up the result of his labors. It is a pen-and-ink sketch, a little crude in execution, but immediately recognizable as the cylindrical towers of the Bonaventure Hotel. He doesn't recall the name. "That building downtown, you know," he says.

To draw a building from memory with this much confidence and speed would be remarkable for any artist. For 17-year-old Stephen Wiltshire it is a special gift, one that has helped to transform a burdened life.

Wiltshire is autistic. Only recently has he been able to cross a street alone. He talks hesitantly in repetitive sentences, often echoing the words of questions put to him. A conventional IQ test shows he has the intelligence of an average child half his age.

Yet he is capable of giving a building what looks like a desultory glance and then going away to draw it in phenomenal detail. He is innumerate, but always draws the correct number of windows, arcades or columns. The sketch of the Bonaventure was a doodle next to his finished pen-and-ink drawings.

Sir Hugh Casson, former president of the Royal Academy, described Wiltshire as "possibly the best child artist in Britain" when he was 12. Sir Robin Philipson, past president of the Royal Scottish Academy, says: "I have never stood so much in awe of a marvelous, mysterious gift."

Wiltshire has produced three books, "Drawings," "Cities" and, last spring, "Floating Cities." This collection of drawings of buildings in Venice, Amsterdam, Moscow and Leningrad topped the British nonfiction lists--a feat unheard of for an art book.

This month, the American edition of "Floating Cities" is out from Bantam, and Wiltshire will visit New York where he has a gallery showing. Though little known here, he has become a celebrity in his native England.

He was a 12-year-student at a London school for children with special needs when he appeared in a BBC documentary about autism in 1987. On the program, he drew pictures of buildings from memory. That exposure changed his life. A British news service funded a trip to New York to draw, his first travel abroad. Other sponsors made it possible for him to draw landmarks throughout Europe. He has had several exhibitions of his work in London.

Wiltshire's father was killed in an accident when the boy was 3. Stephen lives with his mother, Geneva, a native of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, and his sister Annette, 19, in Paddington in central London. The Wiltshires receive public assistance. Stephen's earnings from books and commissions--his fee for a pen-and-ink drawing of a building is $1,800--go into a trust for his future care.

Geneva Wiltshire avoids all publicity. Stephen's London interviews take place at the Notting Hill flat of Margaret Hewson, his literary agent and mentor since 1987. Hewson, whose agency represents authors including D. M. Thomas and Dick Francis, met Wiltshire through Sir Hugh Casson of the Royal Academy. Hewson represented Wiltshire on his books and their relationship has become a close friendship.

Hewson arranged for corporate sponsors who helped Wiltshire travel to Europe and America. She and her husband have accompanied him on some of the tours, as has his sister and friends.

At Hewson's home, Wiltshire and a visitor discuss his American tour. Ask him what cities he has visited, and he recites: "I went to New York and stayed at the Pierre Hotel. I went to Los Angeles and stayed at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I went to Las Vegas and stayed at the Golden Nugget Hotel . . . ." He speaks in a deliberate monotone. He often answers questions by supplying lists, a common characteristic of autism.

Hewson brings out a score of Wiltshire's drawings of American cities, created for his next book. Here is an extraordinarily detailed rendering of downtown Chicago, with Michigan Avenue and the Tribune building; here is San Francisco from the air, with his two favorite landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge and the pyramid-shaped Transamerica building. Then a montage of Los Angeles scenes; the downtown skyline, Santa Monica beach and the flatlands below the Hollywood sign, all accurate in detail and all drawn from memory after he returned to England.

Before Wiltshire attended Queensmill, his London school, he was unable to speak and did not respond to other people. He had screaming fits and uncontrollable tantrums and seemed imprisoned inside a mysterious inexplicable world of his own imagining.

He began drawing at age 7, an important turning point in his development, and concentrated on buildings from age 10. Wiltshire also draws landscapes, cars and people. Many of his landscapes are peopled, and drawings and caricatures of people he knows are sprinkled through "Floating Cities."

"Floating Cities" illustrates Wiltshire's ability to capture not only a building's detail; he has an innate sense of perspective and also can convey the mood a building evokes. Thus his Kremlin Palace in Moscow looks forbidding and imposing; his St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square with its multicolored cluster of onion domes, seems to spring from a fantasy. Hewson has taught him the names of the architectural styles. Asked to draw an imaginary Venetian scene, Wiltshire asked Hewson if she wanted Gothic or Renaissance, and then produced a classic vista of palaces, a canal and gondolas in five minutes.

Weekdays, Wiltshire is involved in a government youth training program designed to make him employable, a backup to what he earns from his art. He is in a catering course, and he lists his duties: cutting and slicing salads, cleaning tables and counter tops, dealing with customers. "But I want to be an artist when I grow up," he says.

Not that art is the only thing in his life. He likes films, and his favorite is "Rain Man," in which Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant like himself.

He likes TV too. His favorite show is "Beverly Hills, 90210," and under a little prompting from Hewson he admits to a crush on an actress in the series. But his real passion is for American cars. "From the early and mid-'70s," he adds. As one might expect, he draws them, with faintly elongated hoods and exaggerated fins to enhance their look.

Then there's pop music. "He started going to music lessons and it turned out he could sing," recalls Hewson. "He's pitch perfect, which is apparently quite unusual--most autistic savants have only one gift."

Wiltshire demonstrates, by singing the Tom Jones song "It's Not Unusual," quite creditably, jerking his hips and slapping his thigh as he does so.

Wiltshire's warmth impressed Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author who was the subject of the film "Awakenings." Sacks met Wiltshire in 1988 and accompanied him on the Moscow segment of the "Floating Cities" tour.

In the forward he wrote for the book, Sacks says he saw in Wiltshire, "a turning to another person, of a sort the autistic supposedly do not show . . . I knew that Stephen was a prodigy; but now, I suddenly thought, there is a person there as well--a real person, a friendly one, not like an automaton at all."

A meeting with Wiltshire leaves a visitor feeling the same way. His communication style can be troubling. But then he smiles broadly, gives a little wave across the room and says: "Nice to have met you" and offers his visitor the drawing of the Bonaventure.

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