World-renowned autistic artist, his mother share their uplifting story in Lower Gwynedd
LOWER GWYNEDD >> When Seth Chwast was 18, a vocational evaluator told his mother, Debra, that her son — who had been diagnosed with severe autism as a young child — was really only suited for a job as a janitor.
Now, at 32, Seth Chwast is an accomplished, celebrated artist who’s twice appeared on “The Today Show” and whose paintings have been exhibited around the world, put on a United Nations postage stamp and sought after by celebrities.
That inspiring odyssey was at the center of an uplifting and emotional presentation by mother and son on April 10, the eve of Gwynedd Mercy University’s eighth annual Autism Conference over the weekend.
“I believe ‘Never give up,’ ‘Never say no’ — you can reach for the stars and you may not get the star you thought you would get, but you may get something better,” Debra Chwast told a rapt gathering of educators, special education students, medical professionals and community members, many of whom were conspicuously moved to tears by the tale of the family’s journey from despair to triumph.
As his mother spoke, Seth Chwast — sitting onstage next to her in a shirt adorned with one of his paintings — smiled often at the crowd, though by virtue of his condition he rarely speaks.
“He always wears T-shirts with his art; it’s how he says hello to people,” Debra said.
After reading a few passages from her 2011 book, “An Unexpected Life: A Mother and Son’s Story of Love, Determination, Autism, and Art,” Debra — a therapist who holds a master’s in social work from UC-Berkeley — said that when she first learned that her son was autistic, “I wept for three years, I was suicidal for three years, and every day I told him he was perfect.”
After being told that the best Seth could do in life was mopping floors, “I refused to lay down, I just refused, and I said above all, he’s going to be happy every day of his life,” she said.
Searching around for things her son potentially could do, rather than dwelling on his limitations, Debra — who lives with her son in Cleveland Heights, Ohio — enrolled Seth in a four-day oil painting class at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2003, when he was 20. He took to it immediately, demonstrating not only unbridled creativity but a focus and an understanding of color and composition that some spend years in art school trying to harness.
Working on his own and with several artistic mentors in and around Cleveland, Seth’s output was prodigious, dynamic and enthralling. The worlds inside his hundreds of paintings are frequently bright, whimsical and inviting. Green and yellow dolphins leap to the surface of the sea on a starry night. Albino buffaloes grin against grassy fields or blue mountains. Colorful Curacao buildings sprawl beneath puffy white clouds. And in his “Fantasy Pegasus” series, Seth often depicts himself riding on the back of the mythical winged horses as they fly above the vibrantly hued lands of his imagination.
His 2010 acrylic painting “Manhattan Floating in the East River” — a 104-panel marvel measuring 11-feet-by-26-feet that shows the titular city and its surrounding waters populated by Ferris wheels, rollercoasters, giant sea turtles, whales, space capsules, a Beatles-inspired yellow submarine, pegasi and so much more — took Seth two years to paint and now hangs in a children’s hospital in upstate New York, Debra said.
Several solo exhibits in Cleveland shortly after he began painting led to shows in New York and international exhibits in the Galapagos Islands, the Cayman Islands, Ukraine and elsewhere around the globe.
And he’s painted two cosmic “Rocket Man” pieces “for Elton John” — during the presentation, as Seth grinned, Debra laughingly chided the British rock icon for not coming by to pick them up yet.
“I think if anything, Seth’s paintings are full of joy, just joy,” Debra said as she showed slides of dozens of his works to the crowd via a large projector, garnering gasps and spontaneous applause from attendees.
“What he is doing is amazing,” Debra said, “and Seth is autistic. He cannot cross the street. Today he lost his black jacket. He cannot be responsible for his iPad, his headphones or his jacket. You can’t train him, you can’t condition him, you can make him feel guilty but you can’t make him do what he can’t do. But if you focus on what he can do, he can blow you away.”
“It’s that juxtaposition we have to understand,” she continued. “We’re not getting everything, but we may be getting something better. There’s tons of people who can find his jacket. There’s tons of people who can cross the street. We don’t get a medal for that. So it doesn’t matter all the things he cannot do.”
Calling her son an “icon of hope,” Debra said that while the road they’ve traveled together has occasionally been fraught with doubt, sadness and anxiety, her son “created me — he burned away everything I didn’t need and he made me who I am.”
“I’m just getting started and Seth is just getting started and we are going to change reality,” she said.
Explaining that she and Seth are currently working on a multimedia curriculum to teach schoolchildren about autism, Debra had a message for those in the crowd who may find themselves caring for or educating autistic kids and/or adults: “When you take a person in a situation that is not going to change and you bring them into a state of bliss every day of their life, you do more for yourself than you do for them. You give them bliss, you give yourself your soul. You learn things about yourself that you didn’t know, and you become better than you thought you were.”