Hayward artist Shannon Kocka draws inspiration from her daydreams. They take flight in the form of fantasy and science fiction. She loves to spend her free time drawing dragons and other fantasy characters using a program on her computer. “You get to use your imagination more. You can explore these little worlds in your head,” Kocka said.
Creating art takes courage to try new things. That’s especially challenging for Kocka. She was diagnosed on the autism spectrum as a child. Trying new things and socializing are often harder for people with autism. “I was really antisocial. I didn’t want to do things different. I sometimes screamed and cried a lot for no reason at all,” Kocka said.
Kocka belongs to See My Art, Inc. or “SMART,” a nonprofit that provides support for people with disabilities through art. It was co-founded by Drummond artist Sara Balbin. “It’s a good way to give what I’ve been given. I have mentors and now I’m mentoring,” Balbin said.
Hayward’s Giizhik Klawiter is also a “SMART” artist. He was diagnosed with autism at age five. He’s now a teenager, but his mother Pam Miller says his peers still struggle to accept him. “My hope is that people one day understand autism and accept autism,” Miller said. “They have an ability that we don’t have. Giizhik has a photographic memory, and so I think that’s what makes him so good with his artistry.”
Klawiter’s passion is painting. He often paints animals native to northern Wisconsin, like bears and deer. “Just painting animals that you would locally see here in the wild, or in the region,” Klawiter said.
He also loves to spread Christmas cheer. For the past decade, Klawiter has annually designed a series of Christmas cards. He sells them to raise money for autism research at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center. Pam Miller says she’s proud of what her son has accomplished. “He has difficulty with the notoriety because people recognize him and he has difficulty with that social interaction, but he is very proud that his cards help other people,” Miller said.
So far Klawiter has raised more than $18,000 with his cards. “I think it was a pretty neat thing,” Klawiter said. “He wants to make a difference, and isn’t that wonderful? Fifteen years old and wanting to make a difference, you have to love it,” Balbin said.
“SMART” provides artists like Klawiter a platform to showcase their work online. Balbin’s also formed relationships with several northern Wisconsin businesses to set up gallery space for “SMART” artists. The goal is to give the artists a space to sell their work and acquire patrons. Libraries, coffee shops and bookstores from Hayward to Ashland feature the work of more than a dozen “SMART” artists. “They’ve become artists. They’ve become professional artists,” Balbin said.
In addition to drawing, Shannon Kocka is working on her professional writing career. In 2017 she published her first book, titled “Wings.” It tells the story of Irving the dragon. “The main character is Irving. He has no memory of where he came from. And he’s different from the other dragons because he’s got butterfly patterns on his wings,” Kocka said. “He’s separated from his people so he’s got to try and find the courage within himself and try and find them again.”
Kocka hopes the book is the first in a fantasy trilogy. “I already have a couple ideas for future books,” Kocka said. “Most of them involve dragons. I’m definitely going to be a fantasy writer.”
She’s also working on her social skills. At Balbin’s encouragement, Kocka was the keynote speaker at the 2018 “See My Art” gala, an annual fundraising event. It was a chance for Kocka to step out of her comfort zone and try her hand at public speaking. “I’m still hesitant to try new things and do things differently, but I’m still trying and there are still people supporting me for it,” Kocka said. “I think she will open doors for others to realize that it’s okay to be like… who you were born to be,” Balbin said.
Kocka says living with autism has its ups and downs, but ask her if she’d change anything and she’d say no without hesitation. “It made me who I am and without it I’d probably be a very boring person, and being boring is not fun,” Kocka said.