In 2019, Jean Sardoni was looking for an artistic outlet for her son Michael who at the time was a senior at Battlefield High School. Michael is autistic and enjoys expressing himself through art. But after high school, opportunities to continue to pursue it are few and far between.
“Art makes him happy. It makes him feel like he’s contributing, and it soothes his anxiety,” Jean said.
She wanted to find a way to help Michael contribute to the community while at the same time providing a foundation to secure independence and direction for his future. Sounds like a tall order, but that’s what she discovered when she learned about Zenaviv, the Ashburn-based organization that pairs artists on the autism spectrum with paying art jobs.
People on the spectrum have challenges communicating verbally, but often find that, through other means such as art, they can express themselves. Harish Bikmal founded Zenaviv when his son Himal “found his voice in his paintbrush.” Himal was diagnosed at two years old with severe non-verbal autism. Now 19, Himal is not usually expressive, but when he sees his paintings hanging in the community or a place of business, it’s hard not to see and feel his pride and happiness.
“Himal’s self-esteem really got a boost when his art was recognized and when others commented on it,” said Harish. “Speaking with other parents and learning that other autistic children and young adults have these same artistic strengths while at the same time also understanding the stress parents of autistic children have worrying about their child’s future made me realize there could be an opportunity to help. The mission of Zenaviv is to harness this untapped talent – to leverage that value and improve the lives of these kids,” he said.
Harish established Zenaviv in honor of Himal and his art, and sells artwork created by artists on the autism spectrum to corporate businesses and online. The artists receive 66% of the profit from the sale of their work. Zenaviv sells reprints of original works, which means artists can continue to earn profits.
Jean found Zenaviv to be the right fit for her son. “I was looking for an opportunity for Michael to work with his art in a place where they focus on strengths and I found that Harish, through Zenaviv, was creating opportunities for connection and community. Right away it became a focus in our house,” she said.
Zenaviv’s creative name was the brainchild of Himal’s older brother who wanted to convey the therapeutic nature of art and the effect it had on his brother. He combined the Japanese word zen, which means enlightenment, with the Latin word viva, which means the colors of spring. He and his dad felt that it was the perfect description of how the artists experience a new season of growth and opportunity by using their talents and creating works of art that bring light to others.
Even with the satisfaction of and income from selling artwork, the nature of autism can leave artists feeling isolated. Enter the Zenaviv Buddy Program.
The Zenaviv Buddy Program was created to help stem that isolation and foster a sense of community. Yuvraj Sethti is an ambitious young high school student who met Harish and Himal while shadowing a pediatric doctor in a medical practice. He has an interest in neuroscience and helping children on the spectrum. When the Bikmals shared a calendar they made with Himal’s work, Yuvraj was inspired not only by the art, but by the way the young man’s eyes lit up as he flipped through it. Yuvraj quickly realized that despite his verbal challenges, Himal had found a way to communicate. A way that could help others with autism communicate too.
In no time, Yuvraj partnered with Zenaviv to create the Buddy Program. Engaging with buddies has helped ease the seclusion autistic artists and, sadly, many of those on the spectrum, frequently endure by pairing them with neurotypical volunteer artists. Through the Buddy Program, volunteers offer guidance and ways to help build skills, as well as someone who can help the artist showcase their art.
As you can imagine, 2020 threw a wrench into the Buddy Program as COVID-19 stopped face-to-face gatherings. Luckily the program thrived via virtual meetings.
“Seeing the artwork the buddies have created together, even virtually, during COVID, has been amazing,” Yuvraj said.
For the Sardoni family, Zenaviv has provided a sense of community. “The initial connection that was so valuable to us was when Michael participated in a mural painting at Fannie Mae. The artists met at the company’s headquarters and over the weekend worked in shifts painting for a period of time – usually around 30 minutes. During their breaks, the artists would sit and sometimes talk – or not – but just being there with fellow artists and parents provided a sense of community. Michael got to see his art on a grand scale, know he contributed and that he was part of something bigger,” Jean said.
In addition to painting murals in corporate buildings, Zenaviv artists create original works that can be printed and sold as jigsaw puzzles, magnets, mugs, greeting cards, bags, and more. And on Zenaviv’s website, you can learn about each artist and see samples of their work.
Until recently, Buddy Program volunteers have come to Zenaviv through word of mouth. That continues, but recently the company began a unique collaboration with Temple University that will expand its outreach efforts and grow the program.
For more information about Zenaviv, its artists, and how to volunteer, visit zenaviv.com.