Friday, March 23, 2012

Griffins and Dragons and Hippocampus, Oh My!

Seth Chwast: Mythic Works    March 17-June 3 2012
Fawick Gallery, Cleveland Museum of Natural History

When I first saw Seth Chwast on the Today Show on January 1, 2008, I was compelled to share his story with my middle school art students. Diagnosed with autism as a toddler, Seth took his first art class at age 20, two years after it was recommended by specialists that he mop floors for a living. Today, his artwork has been in shown in the Galapagos Islands; The National Gallery of the Cayman Islands; Curacao, Venezuela; and the Museum of Modern Art of the Ukraine. In April 2012, Seth’s art will appear on a United Nations Postal Administration Stamp! While Seth has worked with a series of art mentors, the subject choices, the research, the creativity, the imagination, and the painting itself is pure Seth.

Inspired by Debra Chwast's tenacious spirit, passionate resilience and commitment to the discovery of her son's brilliance as an artist who is autistic, I immediately emailed Seth and Debra for permission to share their story and Seth's artwork with my middle school art students. Seth’s powerful, colorful abstract paintings of animals, birds, cityscapes, and human hands intrinsically focused on the basic Elements and Principles of Design I wanted to teach my students. By 4:30pm on January 1, Seth and Debra, had e-mailed a reply, “We would be honored for you to use Seth’s artwork with your students.”  On January 3, OMS Art 1 students began their first lesson.

Seth Chwast, Griffin
Seth and his mother’s story wove perfectly into my philosophy of education. As the art teacher for Oakville Middle School for the past five years, I design my 6th, 7th and 8th grade visual arts program on a Comprehensive Model Art-for-Life philosophy of education. With the support and encouragement of my principals, my lesson plans integrate interdisciplinary subjects such as: chemistry, biology, math, world history, world cultures, current events, geography, reading, writing, music, and languages into the visual art Elements and Principles of Design, art production, art aesthetics, art criticism, visual culture, peer teaching, technology and self-assessment. Since each student deserves an equal chance to succeed, each lesson is modified and adapted to the needs of my students, beginning with knowledge gained in elementary school and scaffold through the three-year program, to prepare the students not just for high school, but for real life. All students complete the same art projects, but with consideration of each student’s fine motor skills, listening skills, literacy skills, prior knowledge, intelligences, analytical skills, problem solving skills, and abilities to make concrete and abstract decisions.  During projects, students are encouraged to develop other life-skills by: helping each other as needed, sharing ideas and problem-solving, selecting and organizing materials; managing and assessing their own progress; storing their projects and supplemental materials; and cleaning-up their work areas each day. 

Seth Chwast, Hippocampus
Three months after I first contacted Seth and Debra, I sent Debra images of my students’ artwork inspired by Seth along with student illustrated letters to Seth. After many emails over the next few months, twelve Art 1 student created pastel and watercolor paintings were shipped to the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands to be used for art educator workshops, along with my lesson plans about Seth; while Seth’s paintings were exhibited in a solo show, Icons of Cayman, at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands.  From October 2008 until March 2009, over 300 art teachers attended the workshops to learn more about Seth’s artwork and about teaching children with autism. For more information about Seth’s exhibition at the National gallery and the educational art workshops, watch this video:

Oakville Middle School Art 1 Students' Artwork Exhibited at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands
Oakville Middle School Art 1 Students' Artwork Exhibited at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands
In the fall of 2011, Debra asked me to review her new book, An Unexpected Life: A Mother and Son’s Story of Love, for When Debra invited me to Seth’s opening, Mythic Works, at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History on March 16, 2012, I had to attend. Not only did my husband and I enjoy the opening, meeting Seth and Debra for the first time in person; we also had the opportunity to view and discuss 50 new artworks Seth had created since 2008 specifically for the museum’s exhibition, while Seth and Debra were busy meeting and greeting fans of Seth’s at the book signing.

Debra and Seth Chwast at book signing at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Elizabeth Adams-Marks and Seth Chwast at book signing at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Seth Chwast and Elizabeth Adams-Marks at Seth's opening "Mythic Works"
The next day, we enjoyed a few hours with Seth and Debra at their home in Cleveland, along with Seth’s current mentor, Amy, who gave us a tour of the hundreds of paintings, drawings and sculptures of Seth’s, lovingly displayed, salon style, in every room throughout the house.

Seth Chwast and his mentor, Amy
Elizabeth Adams-Marks and Seth Chwast looking at photos of students' artwork from Oakville Middle School 
Unable to leave without purchasing one of Seth’s abstract oil paintings, my husband, Peter, and I, along with Debra and Seth, squeezed into a powder room where eight of Seth’s abstracts were hanging. Before we said good-bye, we also purchased the first available silkscreen print of one panel from Seth’s 104 panel acrylic painting, “Manhattan Floating”.

Seth Chwast in his studio
Each semester since January 2008, my students have researched Seth's website, watched the videos about his journey, analyzed his paintings and often shared their own stories of friends and family who struggle with the anxiety and stress of living with a loved one diagnosed with autism. They create their own animal paintings, not only informed by Seth's sensitivity to color, shape and form, but also to his ability to see, hear and process the space between the lines. At the beginning of the project every semester, many of my students don’t think they can draw.  But with Seth as inspiration, by the end of the project, the students are proud of their accomplishments.  During the written summative assessments, some students openly share how their beliefs about people with special needs have changed because of Seth.  Not only have their thoughts changed, they also promise that their behaviors will change as well.

As an educator who often works with students who are autistic, I recommend An Unexpected Life: A Mother and Son's Story of Love to anyone who seeks a world beyond apprehension and darkness, beyond the bleak wall of denial, to a celebration of life and a kaleidoscope of possibilities.