When Zion Levy Stewart first started sketching pictures of visitors to his home in the late 90s, most people thought it would just be a nice way for him to pass the time.
Today the Mullumbimby resident is waiting to find out whether one of his strikingly colourful portraits will be hung, or perhaps even selected as a finalist, in the Archibald Prize.
The 40-year-old has Downs Syndrome, but the judges in Australia’s country’s most famous portrait exhibition, will be making their decision based on Levi’s ability rather than his disability.
‘We didn’t say on the entry form that he needed any special assistance because he basically doesn’t,’ Levy’s mother Christine says.
‘So they’ll be making a judgment based completely on the quality of his work.
‘Whatever they decide, the fact that he’s got to this point is great. For me, it’s basically a miracle.’
The subject of Zion’s portrait is Walangari Karntawarra – a Sydney-based Aboriginal elder, artist, musician and educator who has been a long-time supporter of the artist’s work.
The pair first met in the early 1990s when Zion had just begun to draw and paint and the connection has remained strong ever since.
‘He went and stayed with them down in Sydney when he started doing the portrait to do some sketches and take photos,’ Christine says.
Six months later the portrait was complete.
Exhibiting a rich array of colours, the portrait is a classic example of Zion’s vibrant style which has evolved over time with the help of art teachers and support from local disability services.
His natural ability was nurtured by local disability service provider RED Inc, which set up an art studio in the Byron Bay industrial estate for Zion and other clients who had shown artistic talent and potential.
“They were very encouraging, providing art teachers and showing Zion the basics of sketching and painting,” his mother Christine says.
“Then after a while I discovered that one of my friends used to be an art teacher, so she also worked with Zion for a few years. She was able to work with him here at home twice a week, and she was so excited by Zion’s potential that she was happy to keep coming on a voluntary basis.
“One of the big things about having NDIS funding is that at last it allowed us to pay her, which was long overdue.”
Supporting Zion in this and many other endeavours has been his NDIS Local Area Coordinator from Social Futures.
“Monica, Zion’s LAC, has been fabulous about helping us get all of our supports in place and explaining how we can use his funding,” Christine says.
“My desire is for Zion to be recognised for his ability rather than his disability. I also hope that his success shows just what people with disabilities are capable of – there are just so many amazingly talented people out there who can shine, given the chance.”