By Darold Treffert, MD
Richard Wawro was a remarkable Edinburgh, Scotland artist, known worldwide for his detailed drawings using wax oil crayons as his only medium. With those he created exceedingly detailed, dramatic drawings of intense depth and color. Richard was born in 1952. When he was 3 years old his parents were told that he was moderately to severely retarded. He also showed considerable autistic behavior with the characteristic obsession for sameness, withdrawal, twirling while walking and a preoccupation with the piano striking a single key for hours at a time and spinning objects endlessly. He did not have useful language until age 11. He required surgery for cataracts on both eyes during childhood.
Richard began drawing on a chalkboard at about age 3. He immediately covered the tiny chalkboard with numerous images. At age 6 he entered a Children’s Center where he was introduced to drawing with crayons where his immense talent was immediately apparent. When Richard was 12 years old, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko of the Polish School of Art in Londo viewed Richard’s drawings and was “thunderstruck”; he described his works as an “incredible phenomenon rendered with the precision of a mechanic and the vision of a poet.”
Like other savants, Richard had a phenomenal memory. He remembered where he drew each picture and had each of them precisely dated in his mind. He used no models for his drawings, but drew from images seen only once, on television or in a book at one of the bookstores he loved to visit. He had perfect recall but often added his own touches, interpretations or improvisation to the images. He seemed especially fascinated with light-its sources and its dispersion-and the tones he uses to capture lights and shadows were masterful.
For Richard, art was his life and his love. He took pride in his talent and loved to share it. At the completion of each picture Richard would take it to his father for approval and then received appropriate and deserved compliments, followed by a mini-celebration in which he and his father raise joined hands in a sort of present-day high-five. He and his father shared an unmistakable enthusiasm and appreciation for each other. Richard’s mother, who also loved and appreciated him unconditionally, died in 1979 but in spite of their closeness, Richard’s work did not stop.
Richard had his first exhibition in Edinburgh when he was 17 years old. His work is known worldwide and has been featured in over 100 exhibitions. One of his exhibitions was opened by Margaret Thatcher when she was Minister of Education. She owned several of his pictures as did Pope John Paul II. An impressive and moving documentary about Richard called With Eyes Wide Open had its world premiere in 1983 and has won numerous awards in many countries. The documentary can be found in the Treffert Library. Dr. Laurence A. Becker, who produced that film, states “it enables the viewer to experience Richard Wawro as a highly gifted artist and as a person. It reveals the nurturing environments that have enabled Richard’s spirit and talent to grow and develop. It is as though deep within him that ‘spirit is clamoring to be free’ and for himself and for each viewer or his art, his drawing sets it free. This remarkable artist’s life and his art provide abundant evidence of the quality and persistence of the human, creative spirit.”
A videotape entitled A Real Rainman, Portrait of an Autistic Savant was also produced by Dr. Becker. For more information about Richard Wawro, contact Dr. Laurence A. Becker at Creative Learning Environments, 507 Park Blvd, Austin, TX 78751 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
Richard Wawro died in February 2006, after a brief illness. His brother, Mike Wawro, provided the obituary below - a fine tribute to his brother and a touching summary of Richard's life and special gifts.
Richard Wawro Obituary
Edinburgh artist Richard Wawro was well known as one of the few prodigious autistic savants with an artistic gift. Notable owners of his originals are Margaret Thatcher and the late Pope John Paul II.
Richard developed his art well beyond the constrictions of his autism and over his lifetime he created more than two and a half thousand drawings in his chosen medium of wax crayons. With these he produced exceedingly detailed, dramatic images of intense depth and colour — a feat that is remarkable given that his eyesight was so poor that he was considered technically blind. His drawings have a popular appeal which is not confined to traditional artistic circles and his work is admired and owned by people who would not consider themselves art collectors.
Richard Wawro was born in Newport-on-Tay in 1952. His father Tadeusz was one of many Polish Army Officers who settled in Scotland after the war and although trained as a Civil Engineer he worked in Tayport as a commercial librarian. His mother Olive (Rae), a primary school teacher, was from a farming community in Galloway. Richard’s early years were difficult and painful as a result of his congenital handicaps. Between bouts of disturbed behaviour he would often pause to stare at sources of light, deriving most pleasure from staring directly at the sun. Strongly repetitive actions such as striking the same note on the piano for hours at a time and spinning household objects were typical characteristics of his autism. However, at the time autism had not been defined as a condition and he was diagnosed as “severely mentally handicapped.” His parents were determined that he should have some form of education and despite several rejections from schools that thought he was too difficult, their persistence paid off when his mother found a special school in nearby Cupar willing to give him a trial. Encouraged by his inspirational teacher there, Molly Leishman, Richard first learned to draw when he was six. She recalled later the excitement of seeing his first drawing emerge, “What I saw was magic. It was impressionism and I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
As he grew up, it was evident that the more he drew, the more settled he became. He had practically no speech at that time and he used to draw to communicate. He would draw anything within his daily experience; what he had for breakfast, the school bus, and the cartoons that he saw on television. Even his earliest work showed the characteristic ability of artistic savants to start drawing immediately in perspective – there was no period of ‘flat’ composition as done by other children. When he graduated from chalk on the blackboard to crayon on paper his parents had a new problem. Though delighted that Richard’s drawings were now permanent, his frenetic output meant that they struggled to provide enough paper to stop him drawing on wallpaper when he ran out. The family moved to Edinburgh in 1960 and visitors to the Wawro household at the time were entertained by perfectly drawn cartoons of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear on the walls throughout the house. The problem was solved by his father – now working as a Civil Engineer – bringing discarded engineering drawings back to the house so that Richard could draw on the back of them.
His breakthrough came in 1970 when Richard Demarco, the Edinburgh impresario, “discovered” him and exhibited his works in his gallery. National interest followed when his story was told by the BBC on its flagship Nationwide programme. The report was aired a second time as one of the programme’s highlights of that year. One of his subsequent exhibitions in London was opened by Margaret Thatcher as Minister of Education. Years later when visiting Edinburgh she was to describe him as “her favourite artist.” Richard went on to develop his talent and have more than 100 exhibitions throughout Europe and North America. He particularly enjoyed travelling in the United States where he was accepted as an artist in his own right rather than as a handicapped artist.
His early works display a large and unusual variety of subjects including all forms of transport and day-to-day scenes such as road works and docks. He always drew natural scenes, often with animals, and, latterly, he preferred to focus on landscapes, choosing subjects he had memorised from television documentaries, travel guides or direct experience. No matter what he drew it was always from memory. The interest around autistic savants with a visual gift centres on their ability to reproduce what they see from memory, perfect in every detail. Though Richard had the immense visual memory of a savant, he differed in that he would he would add or move elements in his drawings to improve the composition as he saw fit. There can be very few artists working in crayon who share his technical abilities in colouring and shading – sky and water were his specialities. He was a self-taught master of his medium.
Although Richard had communication difficulties, he had the knack of connecting with almost everyone he met. He could be charming and was very good at persuading care workers to take him to his favourite bookshop to look at illustrated books. As a result of his frequent visits, Richard was well known to the staff of the main Edinburgh bookshops. He had a friendship with one of shop assistants at Thin’s bookshop that lasted over 30 years. Music also played a big part in his life. Sixties pop music was his speciality and if played a song he could name it, the singer and the year usually within the first bar of the introduction and often from the opening chords.
As an ideal subject for human interest television and psychology theses, Richard participated in countless programmes and studies. Far from finding it tedious he rather enjoyed the attention declaring himself an “international artist.” An award-winning documentary, With Eyes Wide Open was made about him in 1983.
Although he was physically frail he had a resilient character and endured life-threatening illness on several occasions, always remaining cheerful and optimistic. Having survived cancer once when he was 6 it was a cruel blow to receive a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in November last year. The body of work that he created forms a remarkable legacy. He is survived by his brother Michael.
Richard Wawro, artist, born 14 April 1952, died 22 February 2006.