Shifting and Symmetry of Time
The subject of my work is the shifting and symmetry of time, which I believe occupies every individual’s subconscious. This theme has developed and transformed in my drawings since 1985—the year I began keeping notebook records of numbers that appeared in my dreams. I believe that I have a genetic predisposition to be fascinated with time and drawing. I still find it odd and curious that I’m included in a field of outsider art—which includes artists with a very private worldview—for I feel that I’m revealing that which is pluralistic within us all. Although my investigations and conceptions of time are certainly self-taught and personal, they are not necessarily outside the canon of human experience or destiny. They’re in fact juxtaposed to the future evolution of technology and human neurological development. This is to say that perhaps one day some of my pictures will awaken from their present hibernation. The question here is whether my calendric calculations and reference points are merely personal or whether they’re connected to a futuristic synergized public.
This pluralistic world of time first appeared to me as I was oiling gears of a 10-speed bicycle in a shop in Austin, Texas, in August 1987. The shifting gears of the bicycle revealed the potential that the gears of time could change as well—it was possible to switch back and forth between connected dates. In 1986, I had a breakdown of sorts and was throwing garbage cans into traffic. The police came, I fought them and was restrained, then taken to a hospital where I was forced into a straitjacket and injected with unknown drugs. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I experienced a great moment of calm and tranquility, it was then when I had my first vision of Time as a monolithic crystalline structure where past, present, and future coexist in one space. The combination of these two experiences (bike shop and hospital) laid the foundations of my artwork.
Although I’ve been able to make quick date calculations since I was a child, these new visions were something altogether different. As spokes rotate on a wheel around a central hub, I saw an interactive, conjoined system of dates in their pristine form, interlocked together in a dynamic network of fluid time. The idea arose suddenly and dramatically and there was emotion and urgency attached to it—the kind you might experience upon waking up from a vivid dream. I could focus upon my invention with minimum distraction by sleeping in the shelters at night and working at the library during the day. I also realized I could travel the world in simple fashion and work on a small budget.
A few strange and humorous moments occurred in my travels. In 1988, a crazed man in rags, wearing a blanket at a salvation army homeless shelter was watching me draw one day and loudly declared to everyone that I would one day become a “successful” artist, selling my work for thousands of dollars. Another time, in 1999 in Amsterdam, thrown out of a church after asking for food out of desperate necessity, I became a short-lived apprentice to an accomplished Dutch thief of rare maps. We would steal the maps and then sell them back to dealers. One night by chance we attempted (unsuccessfully) to break into an art gallery—where years later my drawings would be exhibited.
I believe that truths are often revealed in unexpected divergent events, the past and the future are joined in subtle ways. I’ve been interested in catastrophes: the Titanic has featured itself in my work; I’ve had moments of sights and smells of that ship; I’ve felt an acute stress connected to small spaces aboard during the disaster. Later, I was amazed to read of electricians and telegraph operators who “stayed on” until the final moments, trying to keep the ship going. A George D. Widener of Philadelphia was on that trip and drowned along with his son Harry Elkins Widener. They had been in Europe . . . collecting rare maps and books. I draw the Titanic in different ways every time because it has many different stories. For me, the thousands of dates I explore in these pictures are a remembrance of lives lost in tragedy.
There’s a time shape shifting, a going back and forth, that always exists in my work. I believe this isn’t an uncommon occurrence and that many people have either a past life experience or a subtle remembrance of the unfamiliar. Time travel, different realities, and parallel universes seem to be embedded within our human experience. So perhaps, even if the calculations in my drawings are too complex to be understood, the subject matter of my work is embedded within every individual’s subconscious.
- Abridged version of a talk I presented at the symposium “Post Dubuffet: Self-Taught Art in the Twenty-First Century,” American Folk Art Museum, New York, 2017.
GEORGE WIDENER is an American self-taught artist and calendar savant. His mixed-media works on paper, depicting complex calculations based on dates and historical events, have been exhibited and collected internationally.