Interview with Harish Bikmal, founder of Zenaviv – A social enterprise set up to promote recognition, opportunity and income for every autistic artist

As a person who loves art (although I’m a total novice) I was excited to be contacted by Harish who wanted to tell me about Zenaviv and he kindly granted me an interview which I’ve written up below and added some of the incredible art work by his son, Himal.  The story behind Zenaviv and what it offers is fantastic, and I’m so thrilled to be a small part in helping to promote this life changing enterprise that offers autistic artists an opportunity to express themselves and make their own money from their work. I hope you enjoy the interview below and please take a look at the website at the artists incredible work (link at the end of the interview) – Julie.

“The name Zenaviv is derived from the Japanese word ‘zen’, meaning enlightenment, and the Hebrew word ‘aviv’, meaning spring, or colours of spring. Our artists experience this ‘spring’ or new season of growth and opportunity in their lives as they turn their talent and abilities into beautiful, colourful works of art that bring light and life to the clients we serve”.

Northern Lights By artist Himal Bikmal

 

What exactly is Zenaviv?
Zenaviv is a social enterprise startup with a vision to significantly improve the lives of artists with autism and provide them with hope for the future. Simultaneously we work to challenge and change the way the world perceives people on the spectrum – from individuals with challenges to people with unique talents and strengths.

What is your role and what was your inspiration or driving force to create Zenaviv?
I started Zenaviv along with my older son, Saket. He is currently a freshman in college studying neuroscience. As I am sure you may have guessed, I have a personal connection to autism. My younger son Himal was our inspiration behind Zenaviv. He was diagnosed with severe non-verbal autism with immune and gut problems when he was 2. Although he is 17 now, his developmental age is around age 6. Fortunately, with a tremendous amount of hard work and perserverance from my wife and several teachers and therapists, Himal learnt to paint.  And then one thing led to the other and starting of Zenaviv. Currently, I volunteer full-time at Zenaviv to help build it up.

Can you share the story of Zenaviv?
Sure, let me share a little bit of background. After Himal’s diagnosis at age 2, we were told he may need to be put in an institution by age 5, which left us with very little hope for what his life and our lives together could be. As you can imagine, my wife and I constantly worried about his future – especially his life when we were gone and no longer there to take care of him. Like other parents we struggled to do as many things as possible to help him, but the progress was very slow. When he was about 10 years old, keep in mind he couldn’t properly hold a fork, he picked up a paintbrush from his mother and started dabbing on the canvas she was working on. When we saw this, we started him in art therapy and since then his teachers and therapists have been tremendous in helping develop and nurture his painting skills. This provided a glimmer of hope to us.

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One of Himal’s Early Paintings

As Himal continued to paint and we continued to be overwhelmed with his medical and therapy bills, (there was no insurance coverage for autism in the US then) we decided to hold a fundraiser to sell his art pieces. He had painted about 50 pieces at the time, and when people heard about the fundraiser over 100 people from the community donated their art to his cause. We were so blown away by the support we felt. It was crazy! It  deeply touched our hearts!

“…when people heard about the fundraiser over 100 people from the community donated their art to his cause”.

Then, on the day of the fundraiser, we sold over 1500 greeting cards in 2 hours and over 130 paintings in 6 hours. This was where the idea of Zenaviv came from and where I was further inspired to help people on the spectrum share their talent and help reduce the stress level on the families by taking them outside of their daily challenges and helping them see hope for the future.

What did you hope to achieve and how has it developed since the
beginning?
I dream of a day where all families impacted by autism nurture the passions and  strengths of their children to develop a sense of purpose. The families should be proud of their children and live with hope for a brighter future. I want the public to look past the autism diagnosis to see the dignity and value of each individual. Our vision is to provide recognition, opportunity, and income for every artist with autism to accomplish these dreams.

Thus far, the response from the parents of children on the Zenaviv platform has been heartwarming. For example, one mother speaking of her son, says it has “given him a greater sense of satisfaction in his artwork, and consequently made him feel like a more valuable member of society. He is a happier person as a result of Zenaviv”. Thanks to the recognition from organisations such as The Washington Post, Woman’s  Day, and Four seasons Hotels, the confidence level of my son Himal and the other Zenaviv artists has grown in leaps and bounds. They feel a huge sense of accomplishment whenever their art is displayed, sold, or appreciated. These developments have validated the power of our cause and guide us in surging ahead.

“I want the public to look past the autism diagnosis to see the dignity and value of each individual”.

What can Zenaviv offer the artists and their families?
We have structured Zenaviv in a way that maximizes income for the artists. Currently each artist earns 66% of the profits from the sale of their art. Keep in mind, this is sales from the multiple prints and products with art on them. So the artist can earn several times and not just one-time income from the original.

Since starting Zenaviv, the artists and their guardians have said that the income they are earning is helping them with some of their medical needs such as art therapy, speech therapy, etc. It’s gratifying to hear the parents say that they are seeing their children excited and happy and wanting to keep creating. The families are seeing some hope that their children will have something to do and look forward to as they grow. As I said earlier, ultimately we dream of a day where individuals are proud of their work, there is hope in the family rather than despair and the general public looks past autism to see the talents of these individuals!

How many artists do you currently have? How have they found it beneficial using art?
We currently have 11 artists and a few more are expected to join soon. As I mentioned earlier, the response from the artists and parents has been heartwarming. Let me start with my son, Himal, he’s not usually very expressive but when he sees one of his paintings hanging in a local business, the expression on his face is just priceless for us as parents. This is how the power of artistic expression has impacted him. For our family, it was the very spark of hope we so desperately needed to forge ahead.

The father of an artist, whose talented daughter participated in an art show that was held last fall, told us that after the event “she came to us and said ‘this is cool, and I am excited to be there’; words we heard as parents for the first time from our daughter”. As a father myself, such news is gratifying and propels us to move ahead with re-doubled enthusiasm.

Is this open to any Country for any autistic artist to join?
That is correct. We are open to artists from around the world. We are expecting artists from a couple of countries to join the platform soon. We would welcome any artist from anywhere in the world.

What are the main aims and goals for the future? How would you like to see it expand?
The ultimate goal is Zenaviv to be a platform for all individuals wherever they live and to inspire parents to nurture the ‘hidden’ unique strengths and passions of their children. Simultaneously we are working on challenging the perceptions the common public has about people on the spectrum.

By the end of the year we expect to promote at least 25 artists with consistent income. Over the next five years our goal is to directly impact 2,000 artists around the world.

The Sunflower. By artist Himal Bikmal

“We would welcome any artist from anywhere in the world”

A huge thank you to Harish for answering my questions, it’s been an absolute pleasure writing this up and I wish you all much success and happiness for the future.

Watch a short video from Harish here: Harish Bikmal – Founder of Zenaviv

The Website can be found here: Zenaviv

The shop containing the artists work here where you can purchase canvas, prints, cards, magnets, tote bags and more: Zenaviv Shop

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