Promoting inclusion and mental well-being | Promouvoir l’inclusion et le mieux-être mental
Inspirations Articles

Autistic artists shine at Festival Imagine

reunion of Festival Imagine artists
A September 10 reunion of Festival Imagine artists, from left: Ben Lachapelle, MC Carly Hay, Lena Baldoni, Ryan Botelho, Jonathan Pepin, Zach Reisman and Casey 'Remrov' Vormer. Photo: Julie Chou
Monday, December 12, 2022

by Randy Pinsky

On July 9 and 10, a dream became a reality in the inaugural Festival Imagine community arts celebration. Coordinated by Autism & Arts in the Laurentians (AAL) and hosted at the Dunany Country Club in Wentworth, Quebec, the event featured works by six neurodiverse artists.

AAL was created in 2017 by a group of parents responding to the lack of sufficient resources for English-speaking autistic individuals in the Laurentians. The organization offers free weekly art and social activities. During the pandemic, many sessions were virtual.

“After more than two years of isolation, autistic people want and need socializing,” said AAL co-founder and festival coordinator, Julie Chou. An arts festival just fit the bill.

Festival Imagine welcomed over 600 visitors, who admired the artists’ drawings, paintings, sculptures and wood burnings. In addition to the pieces sold, nearly $5,000 was raised for future programming thanks to a barbecue, raffle fundraiser and an auction of 30 artworks donated by local artisans. “This was a true situation of artists supporting artists,” stated Chou.

The artists participating at the festival were Lena Baldoni, Ryan Botelho, Ben Lachapelle, Jonathan Pepin, Zach Riesman and Casey ‘Remrov’ Vormer, who chatted with potential buyers. “Many believe autistic people have problems communicating,” observed Chou, “but when you engage them in their passion, they shine.”

The festival’s impact even went beyond the event itself. Artist Botelho was recently awarded a $5,000 Montreal Central Lions Club Foundation education scholarship for the Académie des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. Botelho said, “Festival Imagine was a fun experience to never forget! And I want to do more.”

Lorri Benedik, mom of artist Zach Reisman, said, “I have finally grasped the true meaning of the festival’s name. Imagine ... spending two days with like-minded, fabulously talented, neurodiverse artists and their loving families…who ‘get’ you. No rolling of eyes or strange looks, no questions asked, just unconditional inclusion and tons of love and affection.”

The organizers also received artwork submissions from neurodivergent students from eight elementary and high schools including L.I.N.K.S. High School, Summit School, Carlyle Elementary School and Galileo Adult Education Centre, which were judged by the six artists. Particularly powerful were paintings submitted by L.I.N.K.S. of dandelions, a plant whose health properties are largely unrecognized. “Like the dandelion,” reflected Chou, “autistic people are often misunderstood and underappreciated. But if you just take some time, you will see how valuable they really are.”