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Young artists with autism use canvas to communicate

Dietrich Sieling, 26, of Minneapolis, works in his studio Tuesday. Sieling’s art will be featured in the new Plains Art Museum exhibit “VIVID,” along with artwork by another young autistic artist, Seth Chwast of Cleveland. Terry Barczak / Special to The Forum

MINNEAPOLIS – Shelli Ainsworth recalls how she felt when she saw her son, Dietrich Sieling, draw a fork as a 4-year-old.

“His lines had so much energy in them. I thought then, ‘There’s something there,’ ” the Minneapolis woman says.

Indeed there was.

Sieling’s work will be displayed in a joint exhibit with Seth Chwast of Cleveland called “VIVID: The Art of Seth Chwast and Dietrich Sieling,” presented by the Plains Art Museum and Fraser Ltd., both of Fargo.

Chwast, 31, and Sieling, 26, share vivid, inventive styles as well as personal histories of autism. They’ve both exhibited their work in group and solo shows nationally and internationally.

Chwast took his first art class at age 20. He was on the “Today” show by 23.

The young artists have another commonality: They both have mothers who’ve become filmmakers, documenting how their sons’ innate artistic ability has helped them lead full lives.

Chwast’s mom, Debra, says his art has become his “calling card,” giving him a positive way to connect with others. Seeing people react to his art brings him joy. He doesn’t paint alone; he prefers to work while someone’s observing.

“The canvas is how Seth speaks to people,” she says.

Sieling, too, uses art to communicate and connect. He says he feels “peaceful” when he’s working on it.

Here, Ainsworth shares her thoughts on her son’s artwork.

How would you describe Dietrich’s work?

It’s completely innovative, and it has a kind of boldness to it. I also feel like he has an interesting synesthesia. … The combinations of colors he uses create a kind of feeling, I think.

He’s “reporting back” something in a very profound way about a world he would really like to be more a part of. I think a lot of artists do that.

There’s a great deal of integrity in who we are and the way we report back, and this just happens to be Dietrich’s way.

What materials does he use?

Primarily Prismacolor colored pencils; sometimes oil pastels, markers, plywood panels and scratchboard; some collage stuff.

How has he changed as an artist over the years?

His subject matter has matured, and he, as an artist, has matured.

I look at his earlier work, and there’s something sweeter and sort of wistful about it.

His work is more aggressive now, and he uses a lot of text in his work.

How does art enrich his life?

Art gave him a community. That’s his community. His community is not an autistic community; his community is that of artists.

He found ways he could connect with people, and they wanted to connect with him, and it was all through art.

How does he respond to seeing his art in a gallery?

He seems rather nonplussed by the whole thing. (laughs)

If you go

What: “VIVID: The Art of Seth Chwast and Dietrich Sieling”

When: The exhibit is open Thursday through April 5; a reception will be held Thursday from 5 to 7. The reception is free and open to the public, with light appetizers, desserts, beverages and a cash bar.

Where: Plains Art Museum, 704 1st Ave. N., Fargo

Additional info: The Chwasts will hold a book signing from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble, 1201 42nd St. S., Fargo, and give a presentation from 11 a.m. to noon Thursday at NDSU Renaissance Hall, 650 NP Ave., Fargo. Both events are free and open to the public.

Meredith Holt

Meredith Holt is a features/business reporter for The Forum who covers topics in health, mental health, social issues, women's issues, arts and entertainment, food and more. She also writes a column on health and wellness, body image and media representationShe was a copy editor/page designer for six years prior to joining the features team in March 2012.

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