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Art by 15-year-old with autism inspired a new Loudoun-based business
By Jim Barnes
From left, Sandhya, Saket, Himal and Harish Bikmal with one of Himal’s paintings. The Bikmals want to expand their art business. (Jim Barnes/For The Washington Post)
Brightly colored paintings decorate the home of Harish and Sandhya Bikmal, an Ashburn couple with two teenage sons.
Their older son, Saket, 17, is a rising senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria. Himal, 15, who will attend Briar Woods High School in the fall, was diagnosed with profound autism when he was 2.
As Himal’s parents came to terms with his diagnosis, they worried about his future.
“Since he was 6 or 7, we have been trying to see if he has any strengths we can liberate so he can build on that, so he can do those things in life,” Harish said.
Identifying his strengths was a challenge, partly because Himal did not speak, instead relying on nonverbal communication and sign language. They tried introducing him to sports, such as basketball and baseball, but he lacked the necessary motor skills to master them, his father said.
Some of the products offered by the Bikmals. (Jim Barnes/For The Washington Post)
About six years ago, Sandhya, who paints as a hobby, was working on a painting when Himal grabbed the brush from her and began dabbing paint on the canvas. Rather than scolding him, his parents encouraged him to paint more.
“We started training him and, lo and behold, he surprised us,” Harish said. “Because a person who couldn’t hold a fork properly was able to paint.”
And paint he did, one piece after another — vividly colored landscapes, nature scenes and depictions of animals. Some he meticulously copied from other paintings, trying to get every detail correct. Others came from his imagination. He painted dozens and eventually hundreds, stacks of which fill the family’s shelves and closets.
When Himal had completed about 50 paintings, his parents held a small fundraiser to help defray the cost of his treatment. They sold his artwork, along with paintings that had been donated by others. About 1,500 greeting cards featuring Himal’s art sold out in less than two hours, Harish said.
“We were surprised at how many people expressed how much they loved it,” he said.
Seeing that there was a market for art created by people with autism was an awakening for the Bikmals.
“We realized that many of these kids have some talent, and many times it goes unrecognized,” Harish said. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we do something that not just helps Himal, but helps other parents identify [their children’s] talent and use it for their future?’”
Last year, the Bikmals launched a business, Zenaviv, to market the artwork of young people with disabilities. Himal’s older brother, Saket, helped come up with the company’s name, which combines “Zen” — enlightenment — with the backward spelling of “viva,” for colorful or new life.
The company sells wall art, as well as products featuring designs created by Himal and several other artists with autism. Among the top sellers are calendars, planners, greeting cards, mugs and tote bags.
Zenaviv markets the products mostly to businesses that give them to clients, customers and employees. Harish, a health-care management consultant, said that hospitals also like to decorate walls with the “sunny, bright paintings.”
The company is working with a half-dozen artists from Northern Virginia and has eight more from across the country “in the pipeline,” Harish said. His goal is to have at least 25 artists in the fold by the end of the year, and he also hopes to expand the company’s products beyond visual art.
“We would love for Zenaviv to be a platform for all kinds of talent,” he said.
Saket said he gets a sense of accomplishment from helping his brother, who “has shaped my entire life, where I want to go, what I want to do.” He plans to study neurodevelopmental disorders and entrepreneurship in college.
Himal, who began speaking a few words a couple of years ago, also derives satisfaction when he completes paintings and sees them displayed, Sandhya said. He once weighed in on a family discussion about which piece of artwork to display in their house — hers or his own — by exclaiming, “Himal’s painting,” she said.
The main purpose of Zenaviv, Harish said, is to help people with disabilities generate income while doing something they love.
“The best thing that has happened is [that] it’s provided some hope for us,” he said. “And that’s exactly why we want to help other parents, other families.”