Artist finds his voice in art, builds an international reputation

“I had twenty years of pain, confusion, exhaustion, and despair. I hoped for a cure and never got one. I moved heaven and earth to find ways for Seth to be normal. When that didn't work, I moved heaven and earth to give him a great life.” from An Unexpected Life: A Mother and Son’s Story of Love, Determination, Autism and Art (Sterling 2011) by Debra Chwast

Cleveland Heights artist Seth Chwast was diagnosed with autism at the age of 21 months. From that moment his parents embarked on a journey seeking specialists, therapies, classes, mentorships, and any other option available to help their son. Music therapy, speech professionals, autism support groups, and trips all over the country encompassed the family. They found themselves in a whole new world, a world they couldn't have previously fathomed was now their reality. Mainly non-verbal, Seth and his family were repeatedly told by specialists that he was destined for a life of solitude and would likely be unable to lead a “normal” life. His mother Debra knew there would be more for her son and his life. She didn't want “normal." She wanted happy.

Growing up, Debra and her family provided a safe space for Seth where he could be himself without criticism. Debra spent years reaching out to friends and family with the hopes of providing him with a nurturing and social adolescence. They threw dinner parties, took trips to amusement parks, and regularly traveled to Debra’s hometown of New York City. When Chwast was 20 years old – after two decades of meetings, analysts and therapies, Debra enrolled him in an art class at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The family didn't know at the time, but the move would alter the course of their lives.

<span class="content-image-text">Manhattan Floating, 2010</span>Manhattan Floating, 2010

“When Seth came home from his first art class, I was amazed," says Debra. "This was a kid who never drew a rainbow or a stick figure. How could he have such a powerful gift that was unseen for 20 years? I was stunned. I also knew that our entire life would change.”

Almost immediately, Chwast emerged in a new world, one complete with conversation, art creation, and a never-before open window into his mind. He began to draw and paint at an astounding pace. Whimsical characters, flowers, sea creatures, landscapes, and cityscapes poured onto his canvas.

Chwast and his art rapidly garnered attention. He and Debra found themselves in a world of speaking engagements, public forums, exhibitions, television interviews, news articles, and more attention than they had ever imagined. Debra, never leaving her son's side, watched as Chwast flourished amid his newfound calling. Art spoke to him and enabled him to find his own voice in what had been a largely quiet existence. His ability to create released him from many of his previous boundaries. Chwast was immersed in his new life. He loved meeting new people and his genuine excitement was apparent when people recognized him and his art.

“When I see the joy that's created in others through Seth's art," says Debra. "I also glow with joy and feel validated in the commitment I made to find and nurture Seth's gift as an artist. After years of relatively fruitless searches, we finally found a way for Seth to communicate with others and connect to the world in a meaningful way.”

Debra and her son approached this new life's journey with blissful determination, traveling all over the world meeting curators, artists, and students who want to be a part of the young artist's path.

His diverse and sizable portfolio includes efforts such as Manhattan Floating, which consists of 104 panels, each 16- by 20-inches and painted in acrylic. The work premiered at Time Equities building, 55 East 5th Ave. in Manhattan, in November of 2010. Other efforts include the much smaller Black and White Abstract (20- by 2-inches, spraypaint on wood) and uniquely shaped The ChamberFEST Triangle (41.5- by 48-inches, oil on wood carving).

As Chwast’s career continued to evolve, so did his accolades. His work would exhibit throughout northeast Ohio at the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals (UH), and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. His work has also been displayed at galleries throughout the country and points across the globe, including the Cayman Islands, the Galapagos Islands, France, and the United Kingdom. In 2011, Chwast was awarded first place in the “UN Postal Stamps to Commemorate World Autism Awareness Day,” a worldwide art competition conducted by the United Nations. Chwast's winning piece was subsequently featured on a UN postal stamp.

This past August, Chwast attended the 2016 Autism Speaks Chef Gala in Cleveland, a fundraising event to promote autism awareness put forth by Autism Speaks, which was founded in February 2005. Since then, it has grown into the world's leading autism science and advocacy organization dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism. At this year's event, Chwast presented one of his pieces to famed chefs Michael Symon and Bobby Flay.

<span class="content-image-text">Mythic Creatures Mural. UN Postal Stamp Competition, 2011</span>Mythic Creatures Mural. UN Postal Stamp Competition, 2011

“I have met Seth several times – a wonderful young man!” says Symon. When asked about Chwast's work, he continues, “I love it and have several of his pieces.”

The comments are not unusual. Chwast's art evokes a variety of emotional responses from viewers. Many regard it as a source of inspiration, something that is truly special and divine. It speaks to a diverse audience far beyond those actively involved in the arts.

When interacting with Chwast, it is easy to be drawn to his calm and loving soul. Brooke Willis, community educator and recruiter for Case Western Reserve University and UH recalls of his decades-long personal history with the Chwast family, "I’ve known Seth and Debra for 20 years. Seth is a brilliant young man and his creativity explodes through his paintings, sculptures, and interactions with the people he meets. I’m constantly amazed at the variety of styles Seth employs in his artwork and the breadth of subject matter he covers.”

The prolific artist values making new friends and engages those around him with kindness and curiosity. A conversation with Chwast often results in recounting facts and current events. For instance, if asked a date in the past, he will in a brief moment provide on which day of the week it fell. Chwast is always eager to share in conversation about news and current events, especially throughout Cleveland.

For now, Chwast continues creating, often working with peer mentors and artists who help him to expand his exploration of art and the world surrounding him. He is currently exploring opportunities with curators in Europe. In the meantime, Chwast’s work is on view in the Cleveland Botanical Garden, and will be shown through November 19.

When asked about his upcoming opportunities, he simply offers, “I am happy!”

Rebecca Groynom
Rebecca Groynom

About the Author: Rebecca Groynom

Rebecca Groynom is a freelance writer, photographer, and resident of Cleveland Heights. In addition to writing for Fresh Water Cleveland, she has been published in several scientific journals, and her photography has been showcased in exhibitions throughout the US.