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Seth Chwast: Describing His World in Paint

By Darold Treffert, MD

Seth  Chwast, who was diagnosed with autism as a very young child, lived for years in  a world of roller coasters, haunted houses and classical music. A dramatic  change came in 2003, when at age 20 he took an oil painting class at the  Cleveland Museum of Art. Seth, who rarely speaks, began describing his world in  paint. He displayed an innate ability to mix colors and create amazing works of  art that reflect his vision of his world and the world around him.

Seth’s art is a journey. Invisible and under the radar, he begins painting with artists willing to enter his world and a never-ending stream of creative, dedicated Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) student/mentors. Out pour horses, auroras, whales and self-studies.

To help explain Seth and his art, his mother, Debra, produces an 8-minute documentary DVD titled A Different Kind of Journey, which is accepted into the Ohio Independent Film Festival in November 2004, featured at Cleveland’s Ingenuity Festival of Art & Technology in 2006 and shown on WVIZ PBS many times. It is later seen by the staff of The Today Show, which leads to a feature segment about Seth that airs on January 3, 2007.

By this time, the Chwast home is filled with art, including 30 small watercolors and 74 large paintings in oil or acrylic, including six paintings that are each 6 feet by 7 feet. It is a world of color and joy. People who visit walk around in wonder, smiling and laughing.

In March 2007, Seth begins to travel. After experiencing Costa Rica, Seth’s art explodes with the colors of the tropics. A trip to Galapagos is planned. Meanwhile, Seth has solo exhibits at University Hospitals of Case Western Reserve University and at the Cleveland Clinic. Both institutions purchase paintings. Seth receives a second call from The Today Show, asking if he would like to be featured again on New Year’s Day 2008 as their most inspirational story of the year. By the time they return to film him, in one year Seth has produced another 116 paintings.

Seth travels to Galapagos in November  2007, where he schedules his first international exhibition, opening on March 28, 2008. Filled with confidence and excitement, Seth goes to the Cayman Islands and  meets with the director of the National Gallery of the Cayman islands, who  schedules a solo exhibition of his work for October 25 through February 25, 2009. Seth’s second trip to Galapagos includes an opening  reception for 150 people, including the mayor and the governor of Galapagos. Seth and the exhibit are featured on national television. He meets with Graham  Watkins, director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, who invites Seth to be  their artist.

Seth regularly flies to New York to paint with Kip Jacobs, a bold, edgy, accomplished artist,  creating Manhattan cityscapes and mobiles.  n July 2008, Seth  participates in the Art Omi International Artists Residency in New York’s Catskills. On opening day, he is seen by the Chelsea Art Museum’s Nicollette Ramirez, who reviews for Whitehot Magazine and names Seth as one of three outstanding  American artists of the residency. Nicollette invites Seth to participate in a  group exhibition in December 2010 in Trinidad. Seth and his mom return to Cayman for three visits during  his exhibition, to be on national television, to give gallery tours and to meet  with special needs staff and families of the autistic.

Seth Chwast: A Retrospective is featured at Cleveland’s Jewish Commuity center from May 3 to May 25, 2009. Art historian Arielle Mark discovers Seth’s work at the  National Gallery of the Cayman Islands and invites him to have an opening at her gallery in Englewood, New Jersey from May 30 to July 12, 2009. Seth is invited by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History  (CMNH) to participate in Visions of  Galapagos, “a collaborative effort between the museum, painter Seth Chwast  and the Dittrick Medical History Center,” part of the museum’s Darwin Year, running July 18 to October  11, 2009.

Seth is contacted by Karen Stary of  Dolphin Heart. In December 2009, Seth is invited by Dolphin Aid to swim with  dolphins at the Curacao Dolphin Therapy Center. During that time, he is scheduled by the Autism Association  of Curacao to be a featured artist for an Autism awareness week November 2010.  He is invited to have a solo exhibition and symposium at the historic Landhuis  Bloemhof Gallery in November 2011 in Curacao.

Future plans include a return to Cayman  to present an oil painting of an iguana to the Cayman National Trust, an  exhibition and symposium at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, an opening in Arlington, Texas and an  opening for Art Omi at Time Equities Inc, 55 Fifth Avenue in New York City. For Art Omi, Francis Greenburger has invited Seth to  transform the lobby with a wall-sized painting of Manhattan Island, commissioned for this event. Seth is invited by CMNH to  return in 2012 to provide the companion exhibition of his art for Mythical Creatures, which travels from  the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Seth’s first book, An Unexpected Life is being  brought out in March 2011 by Sterling, publishing arm of Barnes and Noble. 75-100 paintings will  appear in the book. As Seth works on each painting, he announces “Abstract in  Oil for the book,” “Fantasy Dragon for the book.”

When Seth is not painting, he continues  to enjoy classical music, theatre, haunted houses, roller coasters and  travel.  Recently, he has enjoyed various  film festivals, art festivals, and world music. In June 2010, Seth goes to Machu Picchu. He is eager to visit Belize, Ecuador and Morocco.

Families of  autistic children recognize Seth as autistic in 30 seconds. In about 30  seconds, they seem to find Seths art to be powerful and moving. When Seth  crossed the equator, moms speaking Spanish were stroking Seth and weeping with  joy and hope. Seth is an icon for anyone who has seemed to be in a hopeless  situation, invisible and dismissed. Any person can  triumph and burst into beauty and glory. Seth  mostly lives in a state of bliss and grace. Seth’s art conveys his  contagious sense of joy, happiness and beauty. 

You  can view Seth’s work at www.SethChwastArt.com.

Update—August 30, 2011

Seth Chwast: An Unexpected Life—A Mother and Son’s Story

Seth’s Chwast’s mother Debra Chwast has written a book about Seth’s life richly illustrated by his art. While Seth was diagnosed with autism as a child, it was when he turned 20 “that an oil-painting class unlocked a talent no one could have suspected.” While Seth rarely speaks now, he shouts out loudly to the world through his joyful paintings and sculptures. The book indeed is a story of “love, determination, autism, and art.” It is a joy to read and view.

More about Seth and his art work can be viewed at www.SethChwastArt.com


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For more information, please contact:
Darold A. Treffert, MD
St. Agnes Hospital, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison
Personal website: www.daroldtreffert.com
E-mail: daroldt@charter.net