By Darold Treffert, MD
Seth Chwast was diagnosed with autism as a very young child, and 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 was a journey. Invisible and under the radar, he began painting with artists willing to enter his world and a never-ending stream of creative, dedicated Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) student/mentors. Out poured horses, auroras, whales and self-studies.
To help explain Seth and his art, his mother, Debra, produced an 8-minute documentary DVD titled A Different Kind of Journey, which was 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 was later seen by the staff of The Today Show, which led to a feature segment about Seth that aired on January 3, 2007.
By this time, the Chwast home was 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.
In March 2007, Seth began to travel. After experiencing Costa Rica, Seth’s art exploded with the colors of the tropics. Seth had solo exhibits at University Hospitals of Case Western Reserve University and at the Cleveland Clinic. Both institutions purchased paintings. Seth received 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, Seth had produced another 116 paintings.
Seth traveled to Galapagos in November 2007, where he scheduled his first international exhibition. Filled with confidence and excitement, Seth went to the Cayman Islands and met with the director of the National Gallery of the Cayman islands, who scheduled a solo exhibition of his work for 2009. Seth’s second trip to Galapagos included an opening reception for 150 people, including the mayor and the governor of Galapagos. Seth and the exhibit are featured on national television. He met with Graham Watkins, director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, who invited Seth to be their artist.
Seth regularly flew to New York to paint with Kip Jacobs, a bold, edgy, accomplished artist, creating Manhattan cityscapes and mobiles. In July 2008, Seth participated in the Art Omi International Artists Residency in New York’s Catskills. On opening day, he was seen by the Chelsea Art Museum’s Nicollette Ramirez, who reviewed for Whitehot Magazine and named Seth as one of three outstanding American artists of the residency. Nicollette invited Seth to participate in a group exhibition in December 2010 in Trinidad. Seth and his mom returned 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 was featured at Cleveland’s Jewish Community Center in May 2009. Art historian Arielle Mark discovered Seth’s work at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands and invited him to have an opening at her gallery in Englewood, New Jersey that year. Seth was 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.
In December 2009, Seth was invited by Dolphin Aid to swim with dolphins at the Curacao Dolphin Therapy Center. During that time, he was scheduled by the Autism Association of Curacao to be a featured artist for an Autism Awareness Week in November 2010. He was 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 invited Seth to transform the lobby with a wall-sized painting of Manhattan Island, commissioned for this event. Seth was invited by CMNH to return in 2012 to provide the companion exhibition of his art for Mythical Creatures, which traveled from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Seth’s first book, An unexpected life: speaking through art was published in 2011. The Treffert Library owns a copy of this book. View Seth’s work at www.SethChwastArt.com.
Chwast, D., & Chwast, S. (2011). An unexpected life: Speaking through art. New York, NY: Sterling Pub. Co.