Artists and mortals


When I read about Stephen Wiltshire, I wanted to see his work for myself. I can barely remember telephone numbers or locations without jotting them down, let alone entire skylines. This sounded amazing.

Armed with HopStop directions to Pratt, I headed to the subway and did a time check on my phone. 2:20. I should get there around 3:30, I thought.

People usually shun NYC subways, deeming the maps a labyrinth of indecipherable lines. I wasn’t scared. I’m notoriously bad with driving directions, but my traveling exploits have seasoned my subway- and walking-map literacy. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized years of GPS and Googlemapping have also conditioned me to forgo better judgment and blindly follow what’s already been decided.

After the first train, I transferred onto the next without much thought. I didn’t even bother to read the sign.

Eyes: White number, orange circle.
Legs: I will blindly follow whatever you say.
Higher consciousness: ……….

I didn’t realize the train was headed the wrong direction until much later. On the road, this is fine. You usually get off the highway, turn around and get on the right one. On the subway, this equates to panic, confusion and, if you don’t have a map handy or if you do but don’t want to pull it out for fear of being targeted as Silly Tourist Girl, resignation, all the while getting farther and farther from where you need to go with each missed stop.

I got off some desolate stop, using my “I know where I’m going” face, and decided I’d just hop on the next train going the other way. Then, I saw them. Yellow tape across the staircase blocking where I needed to go. I contemplated hopping over them, tapes be damned, when someone nearby uttered an exasperated, “That train isn’t stopping here?!”

A girl, who had been standing in front of me staring at something, nonchalantly turned around and said, “No. You’ve got to get off at 61st and catch the train there.”

Such wisdom! I thought. She had memorized all the stops on this particular line and could predict the train schedule, even all the idiosyncrasies and changes!

It wasn’t until she walked away that I noticed what she had been staring at: Signs about construction, schedule changes and the stops to use. The girl had something more important than impeccable memory and psychic powers. She had common sense.

It took me more than the estimated hour and a half to get to Pratt. It involved another transfer, walking through what I thought was the graffiti-laced ghetto of Queens (which my roommate later informed me is actually an artist’s haven), before I finally got to Pratt around 4 p.m.

I was sweaty, flustered and determined to get the most out of my ordeal. By golly, I was going to stay there until it closed!  And then it hit me. Here was a man who could memorize skylines after a few minutes, and there I was, a mere mortal who could not follow simple directions.

I knew I belonged on the other side of the rope, marveling at the artist before me.

He took a 20-minute helicopter ride above NYC and, without
looking at notes or photographs, produced this in six days.

IMG_0364He was diagnosed with autism as a child and began speaking when his grade school teachers temporarily took away his art supplies to encourage him to ask for them.

DSC_0137When he draws, he listens to NKOTB, Backstreet Boys, Beyonce, Outkast and ’80s and ’90s music. He’s done panoramic memory drawings of London, Rome, Madrid, Dubai, Jerusalem, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

DSC_0133He kept smiling right before he finished (He finished two days early). Afterward I asked him what he was thinking about when he smiled. He said, “I was excited to finish the panorama. My last panorama forever.” His sister, Annette Wiltshire, said, “He’s always smiling. He was born a smiler.”

Making sense of the abstract


Abstract art has always gone over my head. Never having taken an art history class (unless you count the one in Barcelona, where my Spanish professor droned on and on about something or other as he faced the wall, and we his back), I’ve always favored logical, realistic pieces. Or at least ones in which people were clearly people and mountains clearly resembled, well, mountains.

Enter Vasily Kandinsky, the Moscow-born painter of the abstract and inspiration for the design of New York’s Guggenheim. I’d gone to the museum last weekend more excited about the spiral than the works it contained (which is usually the case for me and museums), and clueless about the main exhibition. My expectations were low, considering the Bilbao Guggenheim had several abstract pieces that mustered up nothing more than a “Huh?” and a “Wha?” from me.

Headset and narration in tow, I started at the bottom (despite hearing a passerby talk about how you’re supposed to start at the top) and looked, puzzled, at his early works.

This is famous? I scoffed. It looks like a kindergartner’s handiwork!

But as I progressed to his later works the narration of his life took over, and things actually started making sense. Kandinsky started painting at 30 after he’d studied law and economics.  He believed that paintings should be as abstract as music, that composition was more important than the actual subject, and that colors were tied to emotional responses. Despite the seemingly haphazard quality of his work, his paintings were meticulously planned.

As he matured, so did his work, with increasing use of geometric shapes and spiritual themes. His work was influenced by the artists he encountered as well as life’s tragedies. When his son died, his paintings — known for color — noticeably grew darker, with more use of black. When the Nazis assumed power, he used more brown. In Paris, his later years, his colors were light and airy. His last major work paralleled a painting of his from the Nazi years, with white space symbolizing hope.

I ascended the spiral, intrigued by his life as an artist. He was influenced by where he lived, the artists in his community and the political conflicts around him. I’ve often wondered where to draw the line when displaying your personal life for artistic purposes. I like that Kandinsky incorporated his personal life into his work, communicated his message but still left things up for interpretation.

Neat stuff indeed.

Check out the Kandinsky exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York, on display until January.

I kept in mind that Kandinsky started painting at 30, pretty late in life and after he’d studied law and economics.