Meet Chelsea (he/him), an artist with a curious spirit and a love for developing and unleashing our collective human authenticity. His passion for our stories, the outdoors, and travel, is where he gets the inspiration for many of his paintings. His external travels have taken him from West Virginia to Crete, while his internal travels have made him a teacher, a student of expressive arts therapy and conscious dance, and a self-taught artist. Intrigued by detail, chaos, and color, his works take us to a place of surprise and recognition.
He's no slouch where words are concerned either, lending his editorial and coaching talents to a host of writing clients and projects. His hope is to do much more work with neurodivergent writers in the future, especially those who are hoping to share their stories with their neurokin. This autistic human is a fascinating individual worth getting to know. His passion for life and learning inspires others to embrace their journeys and live fully.
Re-Route Magazine (RR Mag): Travel opens the mind and soul. Can you tell us a little about where you've been, and do you have any memorable moments?
Chelsea Delaney: I have been to New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii, Minnesota, West Virginia, New Orleans, New York, Germany, and Crete.
I was very jet-lagged on my first full day in Crete and was shopping in a store with a friend when I picked up a bar of soap. The package said, "Made with donkey milk." My jet-lagged self practically ran up to the shopkeeper and asked her, my voice full of awe and autistic volume, "Excuse me, but what is donkey milk?!?!" She looked at me with no condescension at all and said, "Ummmm, milk from a donkey." We both spontaneously broke out laughing for a good thirty seconds. When I went to pay for it so I could remember the silly moment, she said, "I want you to have it. This moment with you gave me joy today. Now, I tell the story here in Crete, and you tell the story back in America, and in this way, we'll always be connected."
What is your neurotype?
Late diagnosed autistic (less than two years ago), self-diagnosed ADHD.
As an artist, you are driven by your passions and inspirations. I'm interested in learning more about what motivates you and keeps your creativity flowing. What are the things that you are most enthusiastic about in your artistic practice?
I'd say curiosity is my biggest motivator. A well-placed question, even if it can't be answered, will keep me revved for days. A close second, third, and fourth are surprise, awe, and joy. Though I wouldn't characterize myself as an optimist, I feel most in tune with my "real" self when I'm wowed by life--even if it's a wow from something "little." Besides painting, I love collaborating with writers and other creatives, getting to know my neighbors, traveling, walking in nature, attending somatic or expressive arts retreats, and, most recently, I've become fascinated by hammers and blacksmithing.
Being a professional artist is not for the faint of heart. It is competitive and takes aggressive marketing. What motivated you to pursue a professional career in the arts?
When I sold my first painting at the end of 2019. It wasn't something I had even been trying to do, but my neighbor came to look at a seven-foot piece I'd been working on, and she was mesmerized by it. She sat with it for almost an hour and told me everything it said to her. Until then, it hadn't occurred to me that my work could mean as much to others as it did to me. But after finishing and selling that piece to her, the idea quickly took root. If I could do something I adored, something that allowed me to live at a kinder pace than teaching had but also added value to people's lives, then why wouldn't I? It was a no-brainer.
As an artist, your unique background and experiences have likely played a significant role in shaping your artistic style and approach. I'm interested in learning more about your journey as an artist and the experiences that have influenced your work. Can you share some of it with us?
Sure, I'm self-taught, painting since 2017. I was doing dishes one day when I had what I like to call a "side-door thought." Unrelated to anything I'd been thinking about, I decided to get a roll of butcher paper, and tempera paints from Target and started painting. I was doing massive pieces taped to my walls--no idea what was moving me or what I was doing, but absolutely ecstatic with the joy it brought. At a certain point, I started putting down more paint than the paper could hold. A wise mentor said, "It's time for you to move to acrylics and canvas." I did it, and the rest is pretty much history.
I'm happy to have come to art the way I did--without the negativity of art school, even if I'm sometimes playing catch-up with some knowledge. Before my autism diagnosis, I spent years making writing my obsession. Though it brought and still brings me some pleasure, I understand now that I got good at it mainly to try and connect and survive. Art is done first for me and is largely free of the pressures and expectations I feel in the land of words. I can say things on a canvas that there are simply no words for.
Art has been a vital part of human expression for centuries. By creating art, we can express ourselves in ways that words often cannot. How has art influenced your life and assisted in self-expression and communication with others?
Painting helped me to feel more like I am taking up space on the planet, not just living in my head. Growing up in a chaotic childhood, I became an adult who was very averse to mess and invested in the illusion of control. It made my life more predictable but much smaller. With the advent of somatic studies and painting, I'm making peace with the lack of control in life. I put chaos outside of me and throw a harness over it to see where it will take me. The more I paint, the more comfortable I grow with mess, uncertainty, and what I like to call "beautiful mistakes." This makes it easier to connect with those around me who are also unpredictable and messy beings.
Creativity is a deeply personal and individual experience, and every artist has a unique approach to the creative process. I would love to learn more about your creative process and the methods you use to transform your artistic vision into tangible works of art.
I believe creativity is receptive more than expressive. This means I am not coming up with paintings out of my super-duper genius brain, and I have zero desire to obscure the creative process from others by making it all about my skills. I'm simply spending more time than the average Joe listening to, staring at, questioning, and experimenting with the immense amount of weird and gorgeous in the world. My paintbrush is a catcher's mitt, and when I catch the whisper of an idea, I go to work.
Sometimes I catch a highly structured story, but a lot of times, all I really have to start is a color I'm in the mood to mess around with. A painting, in my world, is a conversation between me and another living being. I have things I want it to say and do, but I try not to override what the piece wants to say and do. As far as the practicalities of my process, there is always music while I paint! I've even come to do what I like to call 'stim painting,' which is simply painting to the same song for five or six hours at a time. Great fun as long as I leave my headphones on and don't torture my neighbors... lol. I am also very physical when I paint--dancing, rocking on my rocking stool in front of the easel, flipping the canvas around while I work, scraping or layering with palette knives, etc. A good friend of mine said that he wouldn't be surprised if I start dabbling in sculpture or metalwork one day, just to scratch that itch to be physically connected.
Recognizing your accomplishments and celebrating your successes can be a great source of motivation and inspiration. I would love to hear about your artistic journey and the milestones that you've achieved along the way. What do you consider to be your greatest artistic achievement at this point in your career?
About a year ago, I got into my first juried exhibition at the SFWA Gallery in San Francisco. It was a really exciting and supportive first introduction to gallery life. I also recently finished my first public art commission, a Little Free Library. Not only did it turn out great, but it was so much fun getting to work outside for a few weeks. I was really moved by how many community members stopped as they walked by, wanting to talk about art and these crazy-ass times we live in. Even people who didn't speak much English went out of their way to connect and share an appreciation for seeing something made.
While it's natural to have the desire to express yourself through art, articulating the message you want to convey can sometimes be challenging. How do you overcome this challenge, and what specific ideas or concepts do you hope to communicate through your artwork?
I always have themes and messages that rise for me during the creation process, but I try not to be too heavy-handed about making those themes that the viewer MUST also see and interpret. Just because I'm working through x,y, z with a painting doesn't mean that a viewer will or should do the same.
How do you feel about sharing your artwork with others? Although it can be a bit intimidating, receiving feedback and seeing how others interpret your work can be an incredibly fulfilling experience. How do you typically handle showcasing your art to others, and what kinds of responses have you received in the past?
I LOVE sharing my work with others. Viewers tend to have strong emotional reactions when they see my work in person, often reactions they have a hard time naming. It is fascinating to watch these neurotypical people suddenly struck with alexithymia (welcome to my world)! When my work provokes this kind of cognitive dissonance, I feel like I'm accomplishing my purpose on this planet by disturbing our norms.
The other very common reaction is for people to really want to touch a painting, which I love because it shows that I've called in some of our child-like nature, our desire to fully immerse ourselves. I always tell people to touch the art! I want people to feel welcomed into the creative experience/nature/process that I believe is our birthright. I realize that is going to put me at odds with neurotypical art norms, but I am willing to do that in order to be in integrity with myself.
As a neurodivergent artist, you have a unique perspective and strengths that can bring something special to your artwork. Could you tell me more about how your neurodivergence has shaped your artistic expression? What particular aspects of your experience have influenced your creative process or the themes you explore in your art?
This is a hard one for me, mostly because of my late diagnosis. But every day, I'm understanding more about how my neurodivergence shapes my art. Just one example: I've spent so many years analyzing social dynamics for survival reasons, seeing what indispensable role I could fill in order to try and hide my autistic awkwardness, that I came away with a tremendous ability to see systems--what are they missing, what excess is clogging their highest functions, etc. My 'systems eye' makes me really good at creating balance in a painting or flow in writing. It's a useful byproduct of a pretty fucked up neurodivergent coping skill.
I'm really interested in learning more about your artwork. Is there a particular series or pieces of work that you feel especially proud of and would like to share with us? If so, what makes them stand out to you, and what inspired their creation?
I recently finished a piece entitled "i statements." I like to call it a cumulative piece-including learnings from several pieces before it. It includes a lot of things I love to feature in my work-underpainting, metallics, line work with organic and found items-and it really speaks to how I see myself currently-a beautiful collection of bold and imperfect states.
One of the bars on my frame was slightly bent when I bought the canvas, which I didn't realize till I was weeks into the piece. Though I've almost straightened it with a brace, I haven't yet made the decision to re-stretch it on a new frame. For me, that slightly warped wood became part of the spirit of the piece, embracing everything in myself, not just that which is conventionally pretty or easily digested.
For other neurodivergent individuals who are interested in pursuing a career in the arts, what advice would you give them?
Do it first because you LOVE it, because it heals you, and because it helps you say something you haven't said yet. Once that is your habit, then focus on the career piece.
It's essential to recognize that neurodiversity is a natural and valuable aspect of human diversity and that the art community should include all individuals, including those who are neurodivergent. How can the art community better support neurodivergent artists? What changes would you like to see in the industry to promote greater understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity?
I imagine the art community is losing a lot of brilliant ND artists who just don't know the language to sell themselves with. Neurovariant artists, like neurovariant people, have an extra low tolerance for hoops, red tape, braggadocio, and other things that stink of BS. In my experience, we don't avoid these things because we're lazy, but rather because we don't have the extra bandwidth necessary to play the game. For something like art, which theoretically is supposed to value thinking outside the box, there seems to be a whole lot of guards at the door. Besides language to sell ourselves with, I know myself and many others would really benefit from a simple thing like having someone photograph our work properly. No matter the iPhone or how many tutorials I've watched on photographing art, my pictures undersell the in-person viewing experience. I know this is true for all artists to some degree, but if you have gatekeepers around art language AND you can't properly show your photos online where it's not so locked down, well, what do you do?
Let's pivot to your other art forms now. On your website, you define Expressive Arts as the practice of moving between multiple art forms to explore and express life's stories. Could you tell us more about this lovely somatic form of art and how you came across it?
Once I started conscious dance in 2014, I was quickly introduced to many amazing practices and healing modalities that I would have never even dreamed of. One of these was expressive arts at Tamalpa Institute in Marin. When I went online and read about their programs, a bell went off. It was what I like to call a BIG YES moment--I knew I would be going, I knew there was no arguing about it, and I knew a lot was about to change very quickly. Expressive arts therapy, at least as I've come to learn and practice it, is really well suited for neurodivergent humans--it keeps us stimulated enough to not over focus on our challenges. I tell people that conscious dance was where I first realized I had a body, and Tamalpa is where I first started making friends with that body.
You've also authored two books, Andrew And The Fun-Shaped People and Exiting Through Pinholes? What are they about, and what was your inspiration to write them?
Andrew is a children's book that was influenced by one of the many neurodivergent kiddos I've worked with. Watching his very real struggle to find his place made me want to answer all those autistic kids out there who are wondering why it's so hard. It is the answer I wish someone would've given me as a kid. Pinholes also has a very special place in my heart. It is a collection of poetry I wrote in the years just before leaving the classroom. It carries all the grieving, joy, and questions of that transitional season.
This is not so much a question as a statement. You are also a fantastic editor. I should know. That's all. You rock.
Thank you, Chelsea. I had a great time researching and learning about your talents. Luckily you facilitate growth for other artists and writers, and provide other essential services for people looking to tell their stories. How can someone contact you to learn more?
If you're interested in purchasing any of the artwork featured in this article, please contact Alora Neurodivergent Art Dealers. They would be happy to provide you with more information on pricing and availability.
Editor's note: We are excited to feature the work of artist Chelsea Delaney (he/him) in this issue of our magazine. As a client of Alora Neurodivergent Art Dealers, Chelsea's artwork explores themes of identity and belonging, and we are thrilled to showcase his unique perspective in this article.