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Artist as Unique as Painting


Jayne Eiben
A painting titled "Red Horse" drew the attention of many guests at a recent reception, and as WKSU contributor Jayne Eiben reports, the artist is as unique as the painting.
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"Outsider Art" by Jayne Eiben

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The opening reception for the Ohio Independent Film Festival at Cleveland Public Theater was a gala event celebrating art and film. Guests sipped wine and mingled in the theater lobby, chatting and viewing work by local artists. Most eye-catching among the art on display was a 6-foot by 7-foot painting of a life-size red horse.

Michael Cunningham, former curator of Asian art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, couldn't take his eyes off the painting:

"I like the red horse a lot. It's an extraordinary assemblage of color and forms unlike anything I've seen before... ... this is a really original, magnificent image. It's the kind of image I'd love to live with... I think this could go just about anywhere in a contemporary gallery in a museum in America. And surely at the kid's classes, it would be one of the most popular paintings in terms of response by children."

What makes this particular painting all the more special is that its creator, 21-year-old Seth Chwast, is autistic:

Debra - "Seth, look who is it?"

Seth - "How " are - you... I brought pictures from Seth's house to Cleveland Public Theatre."

A year ago, Chwast's mother, Debra, was told by a vocational counselor that he should consider dry mopping floors for a career. Instead, she signed her son up for an art class at the Cleveland Museum of Art and was amazed by what he brought home. When local artists started visiting their home to watch her son paint, she knew they were onto something.

Penn State College invited Chwast last spring to participate in a Medical Humanities Consortium on Disability Studies in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Knowing that Chwast wouldn't be able to participate in a panel discussion, his art teacher videotaped him painting the red horse. The video evolved into an eight minute documentary that so enthralled the audience in Hershey that the Ohio Independent Film Festival included it in its 2004 selections.

Chwast's red horse fascinated Rick Deering, one of the other artists with work on display in the lobby of the theater at the film festival:

RD- "It makes me happy even though it's a red horse. It's just so colorful and just has an easy feeling about it. It makes you feel warm inside. To me the horse has a smile on it... It's just different. Not too busy, I like the way he paints."

JE - "Have you met the artist?"

RD - "No I have not."

JE - "Do you know anything about him?"

RD -"Nothing."

JE - "Did you know he's autistic?"

RD - "No. Did not at all. That's fantastic. Beautiful. How long has he been painting?"

JE - "Just a year."

RD - "Is that all? You're kidding! I've been doing photography for about twenty some years... For him to have only been doing that for a year is phenomenal. Beautiful stuff."

Chwast's work did not enthrall everyone at the reception. Steve took a moment to look at the painting on his way into the theater:

S - "Well, it's a red horse with four legs put in a peculiar arrangement. Something that I might have drawn in elementary school... I don't know. It's interesting. It's basic, I guess."

JE - "Do you know anything about the artist?"

S - "No."

JE - "Did you know he's autistic?"

S- "No I didn't! Well, see now I have a whole different opinion. That's pretty good... That certainly puts it in a different light."

Chwast is what is often referred to by critics as an Outsider Artist. Such artists, who include prisoners and psychiatric patients, work and often live outside mainstream society. They create art that doesn't correlate with conventional movements or styles. For Michael Cunningham, Chwast's work offers a fresh perspective in the often staid and predictable world of art:

MC - "It really revives for me wonderful, basic, instinctual feelings and optimism about the world - the world we live in expressed in oil and brush strokes that are honest. They're unlearned. They're just there. They have no history to them. They have no training to them. And I really like that."

Chwast's disability attorney, Janet Lowder, says his journey from disability to promising artist offers hope to all parents:

JL - "I think that so often when people go through the system, I don't know if it's because of shortage of time or shortage of people or whatever, people just get channeled. Nobody looks at these individuals creatively...Try and open up every possible door for them because you just don't know where they may end up... I think it applies to any child with or without a disability. Don't try to pigeon hole them. Let them explore."

For the first time, Debra Chwast believes there is a meaningful place for her son:

DC - "Many of the people here are artists and they respect him. And when we go to the art museum and he's in a prints class and he'll pick a color, and people will come over to see what he's doing because his colors are great. Okay, so he can't talk. Talking can be overrated. He can't talk, he doesn't have logic, he doesn't have judgment and he has color. And there are things he has that I will never have in a million years. I used to be very interested in John Cunningham Lilly and his research on dolphins. He says they're as bright as we are, they're just different. And I never knew it would become so important in my life to understand that someone who has none of my skills is my equal. He can be as bright as I am, he can be as important as I am, he can be as good as I am and have absolutely nothing that normative society says he has to have. And tonight is a testimony to that."

Because art is nonverbal, Debra Chwast believes it's a place where Seth can thrive. She says she now has hope that her son will be okay, that he'll have peers and a life with meaning. It's what every mother wants for her child.

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