Twenty years ago, George Widener was living in homeless shelters and taking odd jobs at minimum wage. But in his spare time, he indulged his intensive study of calendars and the dates of historical events — loops of arithmetic he’d committed to memory — and developed his own system of numerology.
More important to his future, though, were the calendrical drawings he produced in quantity. “I was doing my numerical investigations 20-plus years ago strictly for myself, with no knowledge or experience of galleries or any art outlet,” says the artist, who moved to Hendersonville last year.
Now, Widener’s intensely detailed, enigmatic work is represented by galleries in New York and London, is found in private collections around the world, and takes him abroad several times a year for exhibitions — most recently in Berlin, where six new works were shown. His work is classified in the sometimes-controversial “outsider” genre, generally meaning artists who are self-taught or isolated from established culture scenes.
This label proved a major boost for Widener when New York Times art critic Roberta Smith visited the Outsider Art Fair in Manhattan in 2005 and pronounced him one of the event’s “most significant recent discoveries.” Today, though, Widener takes issue with the term. “I suppose you could have called me an outsider 20 years ago, but today, showing in galleries and museums, I am not an outsider by definition,” he points out.
He considers himself a “calendar calculator” as well as a working artist, able to produce works of numerically based art, plus an astonishing array of Asian-inspired scrollwork and Old Master-influenced landscapes. But it was Widener’s Asperger Syndrome that explained his uncanny facility with calendars, dates, and numerical relationships. People with the disorder, which is on the autism spectrum, typically struggle with social skills but often display remarkable cognitive ability, usually in a highly focused area. Widener was diagnosed in early adulthood but had demonstrated exceptional mathematical and calendrical skills as a child growing up in rural Kentucky, Nashville, and in a multi-racial family in Cincinnati.
“My mom, who was a great person, was at one time a barmaid [in Cincinnati],” says Widener, remembering the inner-city portion of his youth. “My stepfather Jessie Burrell was African-American, a piano player and a grandson of slaves.”
Another crucial influence was being introduced to “mega-savant” Kim Peek, who inspired Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man. The meeting took place shortly before Peek’s death in 2009, and was a signal event in Widener’s life. In an interview with The Guardian last year he said, “I accepted that I could be myself and that was okay.” Since that crucial meeting, Widener has been featured on a segment of the PBS science series NOVA, was included in a six-part series about savants and geniuses on the Discovery Channel, and is the subject of The Art of George Widener, written by art historian and critic Roger Cardinal and published in 2009. “My pictures come to me in dreams,” Widener says, “and I read current events.”
Widener’s drawings, paintings, and mixed-media works are highly structured in form, but their arrangements of numbers, letters, and dates can be difficult to decode for the casual observer. Easiest to decipher, especially for Sudoku enthusiasts, are his Magic Squares, in which each line, column, and diagonal of numbers add up to the same sum. More difficult are his “Megalopolis” series of mixed-media cityscapes, below which are calendar-like arrangements of squares, rectangles, and dates. “Megalopolis 21/12,” for example, commemorates the approach of a future palindromic date, December 21, 2112 (in European usage noted as 21/12/2112, which reads the same forwards and backwards). Some years ago, to recognize another palindromic date — 20/02/2002 — Widener also noted a palindromic time for that date, 8:02 pm (20:02 in military time), and held his breath for exactly 20.02 seconds in order to, as he said then, “be in touch with the moment.”
Widener has also produced a series of unusual calendars he calls “Robot Teaching Calendars,” based on his belief that machine technology will one day come to dominate human intelligence. “I have optimism about future technology,” Widener says. “I believe in future artificial intelligence that may help save us. I created a system using dates that contain patterns that may be of interest to such machines.” One such calendar has a missing date that Widener says would be extremely difficult for a human to solve, but that a robot would easily notice. “Robots, I believe, will collect my work,” he once said. “But you don’t need to be a robot to enjoy it.”
While Widener’s works have been seen in exhibitions from Paris to Berlin to London, others have stayed closer to home. Recently included in a show at Asheville Art Museum, he has also donated one of his landscape paintings to the Haywood County Library in Waynesville, to sell as a fundraising tool. (Widener lived in Waynesville and in Asheville before moving to Hendersonville.) “I always enjoy drawing in libraries,” Widener says. “Art has been a relaxation for me. If I didn’t have my art, I’d be in trouble.”