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'Savants' amaze world with creative talent

Yoshio Nomura, with his "wagashi"

Yoshio Nomura was slumped into a chair studiously regarding the work of his hands and evading the eyes of his customers. While a few potential clients puttered about Yoshio’s exhibit, I was warmly welcomed by his mother Kyoko, who started to explain it all to me.

They had rented this elegant, empty and very expensive space in the center of Osaka for his solo March 2009 show, and it was crammed to the gills with Yoshio’s exuberant art.

After a brief tour of the exhibit space she pulled me aside to explain in perfect English, “Yoshio is not normal; he has a serious developmental disability” as if she felt required to apologize (which I understand is a Japanese cultural tendency).

Yoshio gallantly stood and offered me a box of wagashi, Japanese confections so exquisitely colored and crafted that Americans would keep them for decorating their Christmas trees. He doubled up in laughter as I extended my hand with a dawning realization that they were exactly that; homemade, trompe de l’oeil, clay replicas made for just this very moment, the big joke.

In fact the entire exhibit was an expression of the artist’s joyous take on life, a visual metaphor of his laughter in the face of disability and shame. In a world that grades worth on money, fame and the great god Intelligence Quotient, Yoshio has somehow determined to use this weakness to his advantage, and it’s worked for him so far.

Visitors push through a vinyl sea of brilliant balloon creatures and gardens to reach his paintings, which wend across the room. Although Westerners may not quickly take to Yoshio’s cartoonish and simplified paintings of animals and landscapes, he’s been quite successful in the grown up and sophisticated Japanese gallery scene and beyond.

Competing against many brilliant and fully functioning artists, Yoshio began racking up high honors within a year of taking up painting. Beginning with a piece in the 2003 Ikeda City Exhibition, he’s continued with more than 20 exhibits including the Venice Academia AU Exhibition, the Cultural Exchange Exhibition in Ukraine and others in China, Estonia and elsewhere.

His style, which may not be a deliberate effort in his case, falls under the shadow “kawaii” or “cuteness” phenomenon that has engulfed Asian culture and is working its way to a place near you soon. It’s a mixture of technique (flat, cartoony, not much depth with pan¬-racial and non-distinct persons) and non-threatening and child-like attitudes.

Basically it’s everything but realism. Kawaii is so omnipresent in Japan that it’s used on stamps, jets and even police uniforms.

I will never forget the well-dressed, elderly business man sitting across from me on an Osaka train one night. He had the somber look of someone with great responsibility, perhaps 600 underlings answered to him; but on his lap sat a huge, hot pink “Hello Kitty” shopping bag with sequins. I’m certain I stared like an amazed yokel.

Yoshio probably knows he could never do this alone, as his mother Kyoko arranged, promoted and organized everything for him and is forced to be his constant spokesman, agent and salesperson. She speaks about her son with pride and some sadness over his disabilities, yet Yoshio has an advantage she doesn’t; he claims a God who loves the childlike and pure of heart, like himself.

This exuberance and belief in a true, happy-ever-after ending shows through in his paintings. There Yoshio proudly details the landscape of his real life adventures as in the cityscape “I Took the Monorail” with its wild collage of suburbs and a McDonald’s arch rising prominently in the background.

"I took the Monorail," by Yoshio Nomura

His lions in “Concert in the Woods” play concertinas with hippos and giant pink rabbits against a polka-dot sky where all is well with the world.

"Concert in the Woods," by Yoshio Nomura

Perhaps he is echoing Isaiah’s promise, “The calf and the lion, and the sheep shall abide together, and a little child shall lead them,” but I have no way to ask him.

Yoshio may fall into the category of “artistic savant” (formerly labeled “idiot savant”) or persons otherwise profoundly mentally or socially limited but exhibiting one great, unexplainable gift. They seem to be either born with their talents or learn at an accelerated pace, while normal skills such as speech or the ability to button a shirt may never come.

Some of these people have became world-renowned and even successful in their fields. But in every success story there is help behind the scenes, generally a parent who does the paperwork, pays the bills and provides food and shelter. In Yoshio’s case he still lives with his mother and doesn’t speak much or live a “normal” life for a young man of 24. In this way their lives are a sort of parable for familial love and the strong supporting the weak.

There are estimated to only be a handful of bona fide “savants” in the world, especially the ultra gifted “prodigious” savants. It must be difficult though to decide what qualifies for artistic genius when art is so subjective and always argued over.

More explicit is the work of Daniel Tammet, the autistic math genius who memorized the value of π (pi ) to 22,514 decimal places or “Rain Man” muse Kim Peek, who could memorize phone books and read two separate pages of a book simultaneously, each with one eye.

Perhaps not incidentally, Peek loved and memorized his Bible also. Tammett identifies himself publicly as a Christian, and his favorite books are dictionaries and the works of G.K. Chesterton, with his complex religious thought.

Contemporary visual savants include U.S. artist George Widener, who struggled with autism and homelessness before gaining fame as an “outsider” artist. Widener recalls thousands of historical facts and trivia, which he incorporates into his quirky0 and utterly unique “Magic Time Squares,” a combination data log, calculator, calendar and art.

Richard Wawro was a Scottish autistic savant who died in 2006, whose crayon landscapes were favored by celebrities such as the late Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher.

Highly-televised British savant Stephen Wiltshire creates enormous drawings of the London, New York or Tokyo skylines from memory after a single, brief helicopter buzz over the cities. Not able to do the simplest math, Wiltshire still catches and remembers architectural details, perspective and scale for hundreds of buildings and monuments after a few moments of observation.

Stephen Wiltshire working on "Tokyo"

The existence of savants is one of those things that humbles scientists and researchers as they have no real explanation for it. It doesn’t follow a pattern, nor is it predictable in the population. They turn up in all classes and run the gamut from profound physical or mental limitations to the otherwise perfectly normal. The fact that the savant’s qualities are so extreme and far beyond the capabilities of most humans definitely perplexes and fascinates the public. In this way it is almost a spiritual phenomenon.

Thinking about savants brought this Bible verse to mind: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise … the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27).

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to notice this connection, as in 1987 the BBC produced “The Foolish Wise Ones,” a documentary on savants, with the biblically inclined title.

Since I would never dream of plagiarizing the BBC, but would like to leave off with some spiritual thoughts, I’ll see their I Corinthians 1:27 and raise them Isaiah 44:25, where God “maketh diviners mad, turneth wise men backward and maketh their knowledge foolish.”