At 18, They Said He’d Be A Janitor. At 23, He Was On National TV.

He's shaking up the art world in a big way.

Special needs children grow up like any other child in the most basic sense — loved and supported by his or her family and community. The real challenge comes, however, when they make the transition to adulthood and have more independence, as there are fewer options available for neurodiverse individuals. 

One man is proving that people with cognitive differences can do incredible things to impact the world.

Seth Chwast is a painter who has received international recognition for his work, which features bright, bold colors. Like many others with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Seth has difficulty expressing himself verbally. When he became an adult, this limited the types of work he would be a candidate for, and Seth's mother, Debra, was advised that he should do unskilled labor, such as custodial work. 

Debra disagreed, knowing her son was meant for bigger things.

"I knew he could do something, I just didn't know what," Debra told A Plus in an interview. "Every summer, we tried 3 new things to see what would work. So we did gift-wrapping, and ice skating, baking, cake decorating."

At age 20, two years after he was told that his employment prospects were limited, Seth joined a painting class at the Cleveland Museum of Art. This sparked an incredible journey that would change the lives of people around the world as well as his own.

"The first painting he did was almost as good as anything he's ever done. He just was a natural. We didn't know it," his mother continued. 

Painting allowed Seth to find his voice in a way that words never could. Once he touched his brush to canvas, he was finally able to show the brilliant colors, animals, and mythical creatures that were previously confined to his own thoughts. 

Artwork by Seth Chwast
Artwork by Seth Chwast Bai

"Everybody from the maintenance man to the board members [at his school] were coming back every day to see what he painted and then I realized, wow, he is touching people. And that's just in this tiny little circle," Debra said proudly to A Plus.

Seth's first big break came three years later, when he was invited to be a guest on the "Today Show" to showcase his art. After that appearance, Debra was contacted by other parents of children with autism. Her message to others was the same then that it is now: it's much better to focus on what someone can do, instead of what they cannot.

"Seth can't cross the street. He has no sense of danger, so he's not safe. But nobody ever got a Nobel Prize for crossing the street," she said with a laugh. "That's not a prerequisite. So let's see what we can do and knock the ball out of the park. Let's not try to spend all our time doing what's impossible for us or difficult for us. Who cares?"

Debra's persistence in searching for Seth's gift paid off, as his art career is thriving. He travels frequently in order to show his art and to gain inspiration. His paintings have been on display in New York and across the country, as well as international shows. His bold use of color has garnered praise from other artists and critics alike. 

In 2015, Seth was asked to participate in The Guitar Project, a collaboration between good-for-you beverage company Bai and country superstars, Zac Brown Band. Seth was one of five artists Bai asked to contribute to the project because of his unique perspective and ability to express his true voice. Seth's painting was turned into a hand-built Taylor Guitar played live by Zac Brown during his most recent tour.

Zac Brown with the guitar designed by Seth Chwast.
Zac Brown with the guitar designed by Seth Chwast. Bai

The guitars will be auctioned off on eBay February 1, with the proceeds going to Camp Southern Ground, a camp for at-risk children. It was this charitable aspect that drew Seth and his mom to the project.

"We're interested in anything that promotes ability," Debra explained. Seth has contributed artwork to many charitable endeavors, including many autism-related organizations. For Seth, painting is a full-time job. If he has an exhibit coming up, he can spend as many as 60 hours a week, hard at work on his creation. 

Debra's dedication for Seth's career is evident, as she beams with pride describing his achievements. She believes that everyone has a gift to share with the world, even when it takes a while to find out what that is.

"Of course, when I heard my son was autistic and he was not even 2 years old, I wanted a cure," she admitted. "And I hope there is a cure for every single person with every single problem, but if there's not a cure or until there's a cure, what we want is a great life. And I want people to understand that you can have a great life no matter what it looks like. It might not look like what you expected, but you can have a great life."

Seth's star is continuing to rise as he is preparing for a show in France. His visits to the country left him enthralled with chateaus, which have found prominent focus in his latest paintings. He is also working on a series of mandalas, as well as illustrating a children's book.

"At 18, they said he could be a janitor, at 20, he opens a door that he didn't know existed, and at 23 he was on the 'Today Show.' He's 32, and he's never looked back. I don't think he's come close to peaking or done doing what he's going to do," she grinned. "Yeah, that's my baby. That's my boy."

Learn more about Seth's life and how he grew to be one of the most inspiring artists today:

Cover image via: Bai