For most people having a conversation is second nature, but where others use words, Stephen Wiltshire uses pictures.
Stephen, 33, has autism – a brain disorder that limits social and communication skills – which left him mute as a child. But that hasn’t stopped the man, nicknamed the human camera because of the way he captures images, from becoming a great success.
His incredible work which includes landscapes of Manhattan and London are all drawn to scale with the precise number of floors and other structural features.
Stephen has developed his talent to such a degree that following a 30-minute helicopter ride and short drive around Dubai he is drawing the city’s skyline from memory. The 4.5 metre picture, which will be complete tomorrow will have taken him just four days and will then be auctioned to raise money for the Dubai Autism Centre.
The event marks another chapter in the remarkable life of this young man, 30 years after being diagnosed as autistic.
As a boy he could not speak and threw tantrums in frustration at not being able to make himself understood.
However, his primary school teacher in West London saw him come alive when he was given a pen and paper. This encouraged him to express himself through art.
Aged six, he shocked a family friend by drawing an accurate sketch of the facade of the department store Selfridges in a style well beyond his years. And at eight he sold his first sketch, of Salisbury Cathedral. Drawing gave him the motivation to communicate with others and the ability to lead an independent life. Indeed it was such a powerful form of communication for him that this was how he learnt to talk, as his sister Annette, 35, who travels with him at all times, recalls. “We took him to different landmarks in London and said A is for Albert Hall and B is for Buckingham Palace to help him learn the language,” she says.
Stephen’s language skills, have come a long way since then, but when asked how he feels when he draws, he says simply: “I feel happy.”
Stephen is also a “savant” – a man trapped in his own world, but with an extraordinary talent – which is why despite being sat in the lobby area of Dubai International Financial Centre’s (DIFC) area five, he was oblivious to the growing crowd.
He listens to 1970s soul music through his earphones as he completes the residential areas around the palace in Za’abeel. To the right is the outline of Dubai World Trade Centre and Emirates Towers plus the iconic Burj Dubai in the middle of the canvas. It might not look exactly how it would during a drive from Trade Centre roundabout to Defence Interchange, but this is intentional, for Stephen likes to put his own stamp on his landscapes. “When I listen to music I can focus and concentrate on doing a scene,” he says.
His landscapes are so in demand that he booked to do commissions until 2011, including Freedom Tower, on the site of the World Trade Centre in New York, once it is finished.
Stephen’s landscapes are sold all over the world with prices starting at £300 (Dh2,100) going to £8,000 (Dh56,000) for the most intricate. Past clients include the British royal family, from whom Stephen was awarded a MBE in 2006.
Since he started to draw 25 years ago, Stephen has travelled to Venice, Las Vegas and Barcelona, but New York is still his favourite “because of the skyscrapers and skyline,” he says.
So how does Dubai compare? “It’s a nice place because the skyscrapers are brand new and there is lots of development going on. The skyline is just like New York – it looks like an American city. It is brilliant,” he says.
When Stephen is not jet setting with his sister Annette and brother-in-law Zoltan, he is in London with his mother. His father, Colvin, died in a motorcycle accident just before he turned three, so his mother, Geneva, brought her children up alone.
Although Geneva knew he was not like other children, Annette did not realise until she went to high school.
Art is not Stephen’s first love – music is. Having sat at the piano in DIFC and belted out a rendition of Marvin Gaye’s Stand By Me, Stephen says he prefers to sing rather than draw. “I have a piano in my bedroom and on Thursday afternoons I go for lessons”.
Just like many other people with autism, Stephen likes routine. He knows what he will do on every day of the week, whether it is spending Wednesday and Friday at the gallery or Saturday shopping with Geneva. On Mondays he goes to City and Guilds Art college to study print making and etching “I can go to the gallery on my own by bus or on the tube,” he says proudly.
Even though Stephen does not understand he has autism, Annette would like to see more awareness of the condition.
“He sees himself as a good artist and people are in awe of him,” she says and this soon becomes evident when I ask what others think about his masterpieces. “People like my work. People come to see me and how I’m doing because I’m so good at it and people are very impressed,” he says before turning his attention back to Emirates Towers.
What is autism?
This month is Autism Awareness Month, which aims to highlight the condition that is estimated to affect one in every 146 people. The condition, for which there is no cure, has an adverse affect on sufferer’s social and communication skills. They also tend to have restricted and repetitive behaviour, with symptoms including tantrums, little or no eye contact and a desire to be alone.
Stephen was diagnosed at the age of three, but many children start showing signs of autism before their third birthday. While there have been a number of causes put forward, including childhood vaccines, it is a hereditary condition but scientists are unclear which genes are responsible.
There are a number of conditions under the autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger syndrome and while sufferers may not excel at reading and writing, they can show an aptitude for science, maths and IT due to an ability to identify patterns.
For more information, visit www.dubaiautismcentre.ae.
Success through adversity