Finding their Voice
By Frannie Barnes
A couple of years back, Jean Sardoni was looking for an artistic outlet for her son, Michael, who at the time was a senior at Battlefield High School in Haymarket. Michael is autistic and enjoys expressing himself through art. But after high school, opportunities to pursue art were few and far between.
“Art makes him happy,” Sardoni said. “It makes him feel like he’s contributing, and it soothes his anxiety.”
She wanted to find a way to help Michael contribute to the community while securing some independence for him and giving him some direction for the future. It sounded like a tall order, but then she discovered Zenaviv, an Ashburn-based organization that pairs artists on the autism spectrum with paying art jobs.
People on the spectrum often have challenges communicating verbally, but sometimes find they can express themselves through other means such as art. Harish Bikmal founded Zenaviv after his son, Himal, “found his voice in his paintbrush.”
Himal was diagnosed at age 2 with severe, non-verbal autism. Now 19 and a student at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Himal is not usually expressive, but his father says when Himal sees his paintings hanging in the community, it’s easy 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 Bikmal, who lives with his family in the Preserve at Goose Creek neighborhood. Bikmal officially launched Zenaviv in 2016 and gave up his career as a management consultant to work full time on the nascent brand.
Zenaviv sells artwork created by artists on the autism spectrum to corporate businesses and also online. The organization’s customers include Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Four Seasons and The Jefferson hotels in Washington, and C2 Education Centers, a national chain of test prep centers.
Altogether, Zenaviv has more than 60 corporate customers and partners who have bought artwork and help to spread its inclusive message. The artists receive two-thirds of the profits from the sale of their work. Zenaviv sells reprints of original works, which means artists can continue to earn profits.
NOVA Pediatric Dentistry & Orthodontics in Ashburn purchased one of Himal’s paintings — a wintery nature scene — at a charity event, and it now hangs in one of their treatment rooms.
“Every time Himal comes to visit, we can see how happy he is to see his art displayed. It brings joy to all of us,” said Dr. Valerie Woo, one of the practice’s partners. “What struck me about the piece was the way he could express himself through his work. All of our patients, parents and team are amazed at how beautiful it is.”
Zenaviv’s 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 alive and can connote new life. He and his dad believed it was the perfect description of how the artists experience a new opportunity by using their talents and creating works of art.
Zenaviv artists — who currently number nearly 30 — have painted murals in public buildings, as well as created original works that can be printed and sold as jigsaw puzzles, magnets, mugs, greeting cards, bags and more.
“The mission of Zenaviv is to harness this untapped talent — to leverage that value and improve the lives of these kids,” Bikmal said.
For the Sardoni family, Zenaviv has been the right fit for Michael. “I was looking for an opportunity for Michael to work with his art in a place where they focus on strengths,” Jean Sardoni said. “I found that … through Zenaviv.”
To learn more about Zenaviv and its artists and their artwork, visit: www.zenaviv.com.
Frannie Barnes is a content writer and editor and owner of ForWord Communication.