George Widener’s art is as puzzling as it is visually compelling. On first impression his drawings resemble intricate, hand-rendered charts or plans for the design of aircrafts, oceangoing vessels, or vast urban districts. Closer inspection of this idiosyncratic body of work reveals multilayered complexities and deeper mysteries. His drawings, originally a private endeavor, have generated strong interest in the art world since they were first exhibited and subjected to public review.
Widener’s life took some harrowing turns and circuitous detours on his path to becoming a world-renowned visionary artist. As one of six children raised in a dysfunctional family in the American Midwest, he was a socially-awkward mathematical boy wonder that found it hard to fit in at school.
From an early age, Widener was fascinated with calendars. This would later manifest itself in his frequent use of dates and numbered grids in his art. He recalls stealing calendars from his school classrooms when no one was looking—perhaps his way of symbolically exerting control over a life he found difficult to manage. Further evidence of his calendar obsession was his habit of mentally converting any sequence of numbers he came across into a calendar date. He became known for performing impressive feats of calculation and memory retention, easily memorizing the dates of significant events extending back to the year zero, and quickly determining the day of the week on which any past or future date fell or will fall.
From the Skies to the Streets
Widener’s advanced technical aptitude, another of his inherent talents, was put to official use during his four years in the Air Force, which assigned him to pursue intelligence work with aerial-surveillance cameras. His tech skills subsequently earned him admission to the University of Texas in Austin, where he studied engineering. When he wasn’t studying he spent most of his waking hours making extensive notes about numbers and calendar dates, or drawing— another immersive activity he had long enjoyed pursuing on his own. He initially kept these activities to himself, completely unaware that anyone else might be interested.
The favorable recognition Widener won for his special skills didn’t help him overcome the intense stress he experienced in social settings, especially during his childhood and youth. A related tendency to become overwhelmed by responsibilities and the expectations of others followed him into early adulthood. These problems became so acute for him in the late 1980s that he withdrew from engineering school after two semesters, and soon dropped out of society altogether. Homeless and stung by feelings of personal failure, he adopted a restlessly peripatetic lifestyle, relocating often among a string of U.S. cities, sleeping in free shelters wherever he found himself, and performing day-labor jobs to earn a minimal income. Because his needs were few he periodically managed to save enough money for round-trip airfare overseas. While visiting European cities including Amsterdam, Berlin, London and Paris, he slept in public parks or crashed with squatters in abandoned buildings.
Widener’s prodigious memory enables him to vividly recall anything he sees. He seems particularly attuned to architectural and structural detail. In all of the cities he visited or temporarily inhabited during his nomadic years he customarily took long walks and later, unaided by notes or photographs, made accurate drawings of the buildings he’d seen along his route. He also continued to record lists of randomly encountered numbers and calendar sequences that intrigued him, as well as historical and statistical information of special interest. In those days, he maintained separate notebooks for his drawings and his handwritten records, which remained private.
In the early 1990s Widener was interviewed by several medical professionals who concluded he was mentally ill—either schizophrenic, clinically depressed or bipolar, depending on the diagnosing specialist. He felt stigmatized by their conflicting assessments, which further undercut his self-esteem, already at a low ebb. Then a counselor in a Tennessee homeless shelter told him about Asperger’s Syndrome. A developmental disorder that impairs the abilities to communicate, imagine and interact socially, Asperger’s is often associated with a tendency to repeat favorite activities in rigid patterns. Further medical interviews with Widener and scans of his brain over several years indicated he fit the Asperger’s profile, albeit as a high-functioning example. At the time he found the information liberating to the extent that it freed him from the stigma of mental illness. (In 2013 the American Psychiatric Association reclassified Asperger’s under the broader umbrella diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder.”)
While living in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the late 1990s, Widener re-enrolled in college, this time at the University of Tennessee, under a special program for disabled adults. Graduating cum laude with a liberal-arts degree helped him start to overcome his feelings of personal failure. This achievement also happened to coincide with a breakthrough in his art. Instead of continuing to pursue his obsessive interests and activities in separate notebooks, he began to combine his imagery—drawings of buildings, transportation vehicles, and abstract patterns—with his lists of dates, numbers, and statistical information. The combination resulted in more ambitious, larger-scale works of the kind that he has continued to develop over the last 15 years.
Painstakingly detailed and heavily worked, the new pieces encompass a broader chromatic range and employ more diverse mediums as well. Some of them incorporate rubber-stamped numbers and letters, lending them an appearance of impersonal uniformity. Others include collage elements. They’re typically structured according to strongly graphic abstract patterns alternately reminiscent of mazes, honeycombs, computer circuit boards, elaborate ductwork diagrams, logbooks, or, of course, monthly calendars. Widener devised his own means of staining them with tea or coffee to simulate the look of antique documents—an experiment originally inspired by his collection of old maps. During his homeless years he took to drawing on disposable paper napkins, whose soft, textured surfaces he likes, and which he continues to use in works such as “Doomsday Device” (2013), pieced together from paper napkins attached to more durable surfaces in a grid format.
Grids figure prominently in Widener’s art, as, for example, in his “magic time square” drawings— calendar-referenced variations on a concept that has inspired mathematicians and numerologists for centuries. A traditional magic square is a square grid containing numbers selected and arranged so the rows, columns, and diagonals respectively add up to identical sums. When Widener saw the famous example in Albrecht Durer’s 1514 etching “Melancholia I,” reproduced in a library book, he quickly recognized the numerical pattern and subsequently developed his own version, in which the numbers correspond to historically or personally significant calendar dates.
Many of Widener’s drawings reflect his longstanding interest in famous disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic, and the dates on which they occurred. The names and birthdates of Titanic passengers have been listed in at least one piece. (He was excited to discover in his research that one passenger shared his name.) Widener’s own birthdate (February 8, 1962) is the ostensible subject of several drawings he’s made.
Art for a Mechanical Audience
Some of Widener’s most densely composed drawings feature tightly spaced lines of tiny, sequential calendar dates surrounding cutaway images of transport vehicles (including, of course, the Titanic). He suggests that viewers skilled in advanced mental calculation can appreciate the pattern relationships among the dates in these drawings, likely imperceptible to most of his audience. He has even suggested that his numerological investigation of the calendar might ultimately advance our understanding of time and the course of human history, in ways we can’t yet comprehend.
The cityscapes featured in Widener’s “Megalopolis” series represent his vision of a more humane, balanced approach to urban design—a future utopia, perhaps designed by intelligent machines, another subject of his abiding interest. A number of these drawings and others he has made envision future technological advances that present-day humans would likely perceive as magic. He has speculated that his work might one day have an audience consisting largely of machines.
As he explained in a recent email, “By using calendrical patterns of sequence, progression, and symmetry, whereby simple repetitions evolve into a vast ordered complexity, I like to believe I’m speaking a language that intelligent machines will understand and appreciate as they contemplate their human creators.”
These comments help explain why so many of Widener’s drawings are initially baffling, insofar as their meaning and function is not immediately, or even after extended study, comprehensible. It’s as if we’re attempting to decipher a trove of aging documents from a lost civilization far more advanced than our own. They’re abstruse, but visually enticing, like riddles in a uniquely embellished secret code.
In similar fashion, looking to Widener’s life story for insight into his art can be like trying to solve a Chinese puzzle. Who is he, really? And how did he come by his remarkable abilities and talents? Each encounter with him seems to reveal new clues. For example, the last time he discussed his upbringing with me he said he was nine years old when his father died, propelling his mother into alcoholism and increasing mental instability. But in our recent series of email exchanges he explained that it was actually his adoptive father who died in the early 1970s. His biological father, it turns out, was a notorious career safecracker named Bob (Robert Ross aka “Red”) Nicholson, born in 1917. After being arrested and convicted for several crimes in the late 1930s, he was clever enough to make four successful prison escapes before being more securely confined in the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, through the following decade. After his release, according to Widener, Nicholson resumed his outlaw career in the 1950s and eventually met Widener’s mother, with whom he had the brief affair that led to George’s birth. His adoptive father James Widener married her soon after George was born.
At Home in the World
Widener’s activities in recent years have been more extensively documented, paralleling the rise of his star in the art world. Most of his travels during this period have been for the purpose of attending events connected with his exhibitions. These experiences have brought him into regular contact with collectors, dealers, curators, and creative peers, with whom he exchanges ideas and information. In the process he has become increasingly familiar with the art market, contemporary curatorial practice, and related aspects of the international art system.
Widener acknowledges that these experiences have affected his perception of himself and his work. From the outset of his unplanned art career, his drawings have been shown mainly in galleries and museums associated with outsider art, a distinction he understands without giving it too much weight. When he was a homeless wanderer, furtively drawing and compiling notes exclusively for his own use, he fit the profile. “I was a true ‘outsider’ then,” he declared in a recent email, “without any intentions or ‘strategy’ of being an exhibiting artist. Today of course I’m no one’s outsider. I’m simply an intuitive contemporary artist with an unusual combination of life circumstances and experiences. Yes, I’m a numbers savant with some Asperger’s traits, but so are some professors.”
Widener suggests that the psychological stress he experienced during his twenties and thirties led to his being wrongly profiled as a low-functioning autistic savant. In fact, he points out, he is not unlike other mid-career artists in that he’s aware of his reputation and the strengths of his past efforts, while aspiring to new, heretofore unforeseen developments in his work.
“I am trying to show another side to myself rather than [just] intensive line and dates,” he wrote in the same email. “Those things are me but not the whole story. I’m aware that I have a gift for drawing in general, it flows from me naturally. The challenge is to go beyond my classic abilities, creatively use my automatic memory versus savant mimicking, to use my graphical skills to explore things on a whole new level.”
Paralleling Widener’s ongoing development as an artist have been the dramatic changes in his personal life leading to his present status as a contented newlywed in Thailand. He didn’t travel to this part of the world for an exhibition or other art-related business, but rather to distance himself from ongoing family troubles involving a drug-addicted sister in the Cincinnati area where he was brought up. After sustained attempts to help her over the years, Widener says, he concluded she lacked the motivation to recover. Needing to get as far from the situation as possible, both physically and psychically, he went to Southeast Asia. Since early 2015 he has lived in Cambodia and Thailand, “both developing countries where people must try anything they can do to improve themselves, in order to help their chances of survival.” One day while visiting a Bangkok mall he sat down to draw for a while when he met Supisorn Taengthong, a student from a small Thai fishing village.
“We got married after five months of dating and are living happily in Hua Hin, close to the king’s summer palace,” he wrote. “We are living in a two-story beach house about fifty meters from the Gulf of Thailand, and we cook outdoors often. I have become interested in the tides of the sea here and my daily activities are somewhat in tune with them now. There are only two changes per day here due to the complex currents of the Gulf.”
Widener acknowledges he hasn’t yet learned to speak Thai fluently, but he quickly learned the terms related to the Thai Buddhist calendar. “I’ve decided to translate some of my calendrical works so that a Thai audience might see them,” he wrote. “Dates and numerology often have ancient history in various cultures within Asia.”
Commenting on the cultural contrasts between Southeast Asia and the United States, he wrote, “Nowhere is perfect. There’s corruption and crime here too, but I personally will take the known elements of the Third World to the seemingly growing chaos of the First. Thai people are friendly and no-nonsense. Living in Thailand has given me a more optimistic world view.” It will be interesting to see what kind of impact these changes in his life and his outlook might have on his future work.