The Astonishing Visual Lists of Autistic Savant Gregory Blackstock
From owls to lighthouses, or what a sixty-something retired pot washer can teach us about art and love.
By Maria Popova
He has been called an “anthropologist of the everyday,” a beacon of Outsider Art. His work is part Lists, part Drawing Autism, part Pictorial Webster’s, part something entirely its own and entirely remarkable. Seattle-based artist Gregory Blackstock is an autistic savant who, after retiring from a lifetime as a pot washer at the age of 58, captivated the art world with the obsessive, meticulous drawings he’d been making over 18 years of after-hours. Blackstock’s Collections, the brainchild of Karen Light-Piña of Garde Rail Gallery, who discovered Blackstock in 2003, catalogs his astounding visual lists of everything from hats to owl varieties, made with a pencil, a black marker, some crayons, and superhuman attention to detail.
Each of the lists, which feature such diverse and offbeat entries as Monsters of the Deep, The Great Cabbage Family, Classical Clowns, Our State Lighthouses, and The Irish Joys — is lovingly captioned in Blackstock’s wonderfully neat yet almost child-like handwriting.
In the introduction, Light-Piña recounts the following anecdote, which captures both the sharp precision of Backstock’s mind and the degree to which it is like water to a fish for the artist:
His remarkable memory serves Blackstock well as he renders images on paper with paper, markers, and crayons. I commented on how many tiny differences there were in the teeth from one saw blade to the next in his piece The Saws. He replied, in a somewhat frustrated tone, that it took him two visits to Home Depot to memorize them all. He uses no straightedge (‘No need,’ he says) yet his layout is impeccable. And if asked, he can reproduce the same images exactly, time and again — a skill to cartooning or illustration, professions in which Blackstock might have excelled under different circumstances.”
The book is also a thoughtful meditation on the mystique of Savant Syndrome and how it has wedged itself in popular culture as the source of such astonishing art. In the foreword, physician Darold A. Treffert reflects:
Savant Syndrome, then, is a three-legged stool. It combines idiosyncratic circuits and genetic memory, intense motivation and practice, and a supportive and loving family and/or caretakers who value the savant not just for what he or she does but for who he or she is… Savants are geniuses who live among us; they hint at geniuses that might lie within us.”
A glimpse of a striking mind that falls somewhere between Daniel Tammet’s and Stephen Wiltshire’s, Blackstock’s Collections is nothing short of extraordinary.
Thanks, Carol in Seattle
Published December 2, 2011