We met Dwayne Szot at the Annual Families of SMA conference in Anaheim, CA and were amazed by his ability to use art to engage members of the SMA community. Dwayne was kind enough to sit down with Counsyl and discuss his work.
Q: What inspired you to create Zot Artz?
Dwayne: “As a youth, I lived in a foster home in the rural midwest and two of my foster siblings had cerebral palsy. I grew up with people of all abilities around me, and I distinctly remember a day when I had to carry my foster sister to catch a bus down a country road in Michigan. She wouldn’t have made it all the way down that hill on her crutches in time to catch the bus. Experiences like that influenced my worldview and gave me the courage in the late 1980s and early 1990s to create an entirely different artform. My first painting wheelchair was a sculptural endeavor straight out of Willy Wonka, with twirling parts and crazy gadgets. It was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the focus of my master’s thesis. I was painting with my sculptural wheelchair painting machine in downtown Detroit, and I recall a disabled gentleman asking if he could drive the machine. At that moment, my work of art became a tool for art, and this gentleman was transformed into an artist. The art was not merely in the sculptural design, but in the ability to transform the human spirit. My art became alive. It became a force for change in the lives of people with disabilities. I imagine that painting with a wheelchair is like leaving footprints in the sand or creating snow angels in the winter. You become one with your world. You create your mark.”
Q: What role does technology play in your artwork?
D: “I don’t think what I do is very high-tech, but it fills a need by fostering a new way for all individuals to create. I have always been fascinated with mechanical design and built machines to enable my own artwork. I used machines to apply color to very large surfaces, like buildings and frozen lakes. This passion combined with my life experience gave me the insight to respond to the universal need for creative expression. I build all of the attachments myself, and I think of my art as a different application of technology— a very human application.”
Q: Can you describe your artists?
D: “There are individuals of all abilities at our events. I bring together children and adults with and without disabilities to create and have fun. Many of the artists have cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular atrophy, hearing or visual impairments, cerebral palsy, autism, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, other health conditions. Having each participant use the same tools for art minimizes the focus on disability. The process of creativity allows the artists to be engaged from start to finish; cut if you can cut, tear if that’s easier. We bring different worlds together without setting limits on ability.”
Q: What happens to those big murals after the event?
D: “We make 50-foot paintings, and then we cut them up into smaller gifts, like cards, gift boxes or stretched canvas pieces. It’s a gift on many levels: it’s a gift to be able to be present and make art, it’s a gift to help children be creative, and it’s a gift to give back to the community. For me, that is what art is all about. It’s a concept to enrich peoples’ lives, rather than some crazy art idea.”
Q: How do you decide what to create in your studio?
D: “What I do is in direct response to life. The people I meet and love, friends and colleagues of all abilities. For instance, I was ‘chalking up’ in a school classroom with kids of different abilities. I took one of the kids out of his wheelchair so he could participate, but in doing so, I realized that he was completely out of his comfort zone. That inspired me to create Chalk Walk and Roll, which is basically a simple way of allowing children in wheelchairs to draw with chalk on the ground. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was a need for such a device until I saw a child struggling to draw on pavement with chalk, which is something we all do as kids.”
Q: What are you working on now?
D: “I’m working on Squirt Me, which is a backpack-like device that hangs from the back of the wheelchair. It is switch activated and can squirt water. We’re testing it out with paint now to see if we can use it as a mechanism for creating artwork.”
Q: Tell us about one of your most memorable Zot Artz moments.
D: “The Families of SMA conference was extremely memorable. I have a passion for reaching out to children and siblings of all abilities. The conference gave me both ends of the spectrum. As an art guy, I’m more like a conductor than a creator. The energy of the day contributes to the score. That conference was the song of the day.”
Dwayne Szot, founder and president of Zot Artz, is just the right combination of artist, engineer, and big brother to excel at helping children with disabilities experience the joy of creating art. Szot’s education focused on art, starting with commercial and graphic art in high school. Winning graphic arts contests helped him attend the Kendall College of Art and Design at Ferris University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He received a Master’s in Fine Art from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He founded Zot Artz to create adaptive art tools and make them available to teachers, therapists, residential providers, hospitals, parks, and other facilities that could offer art experiences to children.