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Arts

This Houston Ninja Warrior’s Family is the Real Life Incredibles

Their Amazing Adopted Artist with Down Syndrome Proves that Beauty Goes Far Beyond Words

BY // 08.16.18
photography Courtesy Lisa Eicher

The Eicher family seems like something out of a movie, and no, it’s not because they have pet pigs, a rabbit, a full-grown cat that still resembles a kitten, a tortoise, and five dogs (four of which only have three legs). Nor is it because mom, Lisa Eicher, has competed twice on American Ninja Warrior and is currently training for the upcoming season. It’s more than that.

The Houston-area Eicher family is a real life Incredibles family — each member coming together to battle misconceptions of the special-needs community.

High-school sweethearts Joey and Lisa Eicher have four children, each with bright personalities and full hearts, and two of which were adopted from Bulgaria and just happen to have an extra chromosome.

About a year ago, one of those adopted children with Down syndrome, Sevy Marie, completely changed the trajectory of the Eicher family’s lives forever.

The Silent Artist

Sevy Marie Eicher is an artist with Down syndrome. She was not always an artist, though. Just two years ago, she was living in an orphanage in Sofia, Bulgaria, where she grew up moving from one institution to another with little hope of being adopted because of her disability.

Lisa Eicher Sevy Marie
This piece, “Discovered,” comes from Sevy Marie Eicher’s second collection Proof of Life (2018).

The Eicher family were no strangers to adopting from Bulgaria, or from adopting a child with Down syndrome, as they adopted Archie in 2011 at the age of 7. Archie, now 14, was brought home to a younger sister, Ace (now 10), and instantly connected with the family. The family added one more to the Eicher clan in 2014 when Radko was born.

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In 2016, Lisa and Ace ventured back to Bulgaria to pick up Sevy and bring her home.

“She was on the older end for orphans,” Lisa Eicher says. “Usually orphans at her age aren’t even adoptable and are just sent off to institutions and lost. But as soon as we saw a photo of her we knew that she was our kid and we had to go get her.”

Sevy did not connect with the family as instantly as Archie had, though.

“When we first brought her home, she was very reserved and didn’t trust us and neither of us really knew how to communicate,” Lisa says. “Sevy is almost completely non-verbal. Being in institutions for 12 years, of course it’s going to be hard to trust anyone. Especially with me, being her primary caretaker, it was really difficult to bond with her because she wanted nothing to do with me.”

With little knowledge of Sevy — she had never gone to school, never seen a doctor, couldn’t communicate verbally — it was difficult for the Eicher family to bond with the Bulgarian 12-year-old. One thing they did notice early on, was that she liked to draw.

Give Her Some Paint

Like many children her age, Sevy would often spend her playtime doodling with crayons and markers.

“We knew she enjoyed art because she was always drawing — even when we first met her in the orphanage, ” Lisa recalls. “We didn’t think much of it at the time. I’m a writer and I like to write at night so Sevy would sit down next to me with a stack of paper and just draw all night.

“About a year ago, I started paying a little more attention to her while she drew and realized she knew what she was doing and was a really good artist. ”

Unlike most children, especially among those with Down syndrome, Sevy drew with intention, curiosity and vigor.

“We don’t have any background in art whatsoever so we had no idea the extent of how good her drawing and paintings were, but we could tell that she had intention when she drew or painted.”

Curious to see what else Sevy could do, the family gathered some old sheets of plywood and house paint from the garage and asked Sevy if she would like to paint. She immediately started throwing paint onto the plywood and rummaging through the garage gathering tools like crowbars, scrapers, and old paint brushes to use.

A detail of one of Sevy Marie Eicher’s paintings: Layers of color can be seen stacked atop each other while sharp lines from the crowbar cut through.

The piece that resulted was a myriad of colors and textures. Sure, many may think it is all random, but when Sevy works you can see the gears turning in that head of hers. She uses each tool and each color carefully to get the effect she is looking for. While having a similar aesthetic and process, each piece produced by Sevy is completely different from the last.

“That’s when we realized, she wasn’t just playing around, she was totally an artist,” Lisa says.

Unsure of whether they were “just being those parents” who wanted to believe their child was exceptionally good at something, Lisa decided to post some of the photos of Sevy’s art on her social media. Being a lifestyle blogger with over 28,000 followers on Instagram, there were plenty of people who were ready to pitch in their thoughts.

Luckily, many of the comments consisted in things like, “Wow! That’s incredible work!” and “Did she really paint that herself?”

Knowing there was something truly artistic within Sevy, the Eichers set out to provide her with the right tools so she could truly begin to chase her passion. And it didn’t take long for people to take notice. After a few paintings were posted on Lisa’s social media, followers started requesting to buy the 13-year-old’s pieces.

“We had no clue it would come to that but thought, ‘Hey why not?’ This could be something huge for her and her future and the disability community.”

Sevy Marie Art is Born

“We didn’t start selling them right away because we wanted to do this right. I didn’t know the art world at all so we didn’t even know how to price the pieces. I reached out to one of my friends who is an artist to try to figure out what I should be pricing the pieces at and told her what I had originally been thinking as the price point,” Lisa Eicher says.

“She immediately responded saying that Sevy’s art was special and truly amazing and that I was pricing the pieces way too low. We wanted to conserve the integrity of her work and realized she was right.”

The previews of Sevy’s work through Lisa’s Instagram made one thing clear — people liked it. The question was, why did they like it so much?

Lisa considered this quite often in the beginning. “I didn’t want this to become a thing that was only popular because she’s a kid with Down syndrome — she was a good artist.”

“When I first created Sevy’s Instagram, she got over 10K followers overnight. And yeah, there has been that question of: is she so popular because of her story or because of her amazing art? Well I think the story doesn’t hurt, but it’s also amazing art. It’s this perfect combination.”

Family Unlocked

Sevy Marie Art has sold out two collections in the past year (priced between $300 to $2,000 per work) in as little as 30 minutes. From locals to collectors in France, The Netherlands and Ireland, there is no cease in demand for these expressive pieces.

The first collection, “Girl Unlocked,” was about allowing Sevy to find her artistic voice through her paintings. It was also how the family realized they were all coming together to help contribute to each piece, and ultimately, the fight against misconception.

Sevy feels most at home with a paintbrush in her hand … or in both hands. (Photo Bailey Hart)

The best part about Sevy Marie Art (which is now a family business) is the fact that every member of the family contributes in some way, both big and small. Each individual painting has a piece of each family member interwoven into it.

Husband Joey hand cuts the plywood and assembles the canvases. The siblings will prep the background for Sevy before setting the canvas on the ground, where Sevy prefers to sit and work over one portion of the canvas at a time.

“A lot of people will often ask about the story behind a certain painting. Oh this one is the one that Radko had painted a giant dog as the first layer in this corner and that’s where this texture comes from,” Lisa explains.  

Each painting typically has about 10 layers on them before Sevy has deemed them finished. Being ambidextrous, her process is a flurry of paint. At certain times, she might have a crowbar in one hand and a foam roller in the other — texturizing and rolling out paint at the same time.

Of course she has to revitalize the creative juices with frequent dance parties involving the whole family before settling back down at a corner of the canvas and furiously painting away. Once Sevy feels the piece is finished and signs, someone in the family will name the piece.

“Just the fact that the whole family is a part of it makes it even more special,” Lisa says.

The Eicher kids get ready for their trip to L.A. for Sevy’s art-world debut at the end of July 2018. From left: Archie (age 14), Sevy (age 14), Ace (age 10), Radko (age 4).

This past weekend, the Eicher family traveled to L.A. for Sevy’s first art show. Fans drove hours just to see Sevy and her work in person.

“It’s crazy because [Sevy] will have people come up to her asking if she’s THE Sevy and treating her like a celebrity,” Lisa laughs.

“What’s really cool now is that Sevy really does understand. With her first collection, we hand-delivered her pieces to local collectors and with every delivery her face would just light up.

She was finally understanding that the art she was making was making other people happy and that’s what made her happy and proud to present her work.”

“She claps and cheers since she is nonverbal but we feel that her art has become her voice. Ever since she started painting she’s been a completely different kid.

“We actually decided to homeschool last year so that our family could bond and that’s about when the painting started and it’s really brought us together. Now, she’s not only letting us in but also the people we meet. It’s completely changed our family dynamic.”

“Her siblings are starting to understand the extent of how incredible this all is too and are just so proud of her. Radko is so young (just 4 year old) but he understands that all these people are loving her work and that she’s this amazing artist and he’s just so happy for her. Her art — it’s been really amazing, not just for us, but she’s also building a future for herself and empowering herself.”

Lovely, Peculiar Spaces

In fact, it’s inspired a future for the whole family. The forever ambitious and bright sister, Ace, has recently created a nonprofit called Sandal Gap Studios, which aims to encourage kindness, compassion, and inclusion through creating and sharing.

Sevy’s foot on the beach showing off her “sandal gap.”

“The ‘sandal gap’ is one of the unique physical traits that many people with Down syndrome have,” Lisa explains. “It’s the large space between the big toe and the others. I don’t know what it is about that gap, but I love it so much. I think it’s just how random and distinctive it is. And a bit peculiar. We are lovers of all things peculiar.

“I think there’s so much beauty to be found in ‘the space between’ in life. The small moments linking the big ones. The unplanned and unexpected. The uncontrollable laughter in the face of a mishap. These are the places where we find euphoria; the moments we remember forever.”

Having two siblings with Down syndrome inspired Ace to create Sandal Gap Studios because she saw firsthand, every day, the misconceptions that come with disabilities.

There is something about being that young and witnessing the disconnect between the disabled community and the rest of society that makes it obvious a change is needed.

The young haven’t completely learned the social rules that many of us live by — the rule that when you see someone with special needs, you avert your eyes as to “not offend,” or call the family “brave” for raising a child with Down syndrome.

There is a lack of knowledge and connection that makes it impossible to know what we should do. Ace sees that and she wants to do something about it.

“Ace is just a little activist and loves anything social justice,” Lisa says. “When Sevy started her art she immediately wanted to be a part of it by creating some sort of nonprofit that would help other people like Sevy have the same opportunities. Sandal Gap Studios has been a year in the making and is finally coming together.

“Sevy’s art has changed the path of our entire family. For Sandal Gap Studio we’re starting with three artists with Down syndrome, two are photographers and one a sketch artist, from around the world with a mission to use art as an equalizer.”

“Art is something that everyone can do and our goal is to turn Sandal Gap Studio into a place not only for people with special needs to do art, but more so for typical people who maybe aren’t exposed to different people to come in and interact and work together on collaborative projects.”

“I think what I’ve noticed since adopting Archie is that what changes people’s mindset and misconception is spending actual time with people with disabilities and actually making that connection. And that applies to kids and adults — everybody needs that exposure and experience. If you spend an hour with Sevy or Archie, you’re going to leave changed.”

Sevy poses with her complete collection after it sold out within just hours.

“So yeah, Sevy has really changed the whole trajectory of our lives which is just really cool and when you think about it — there was this 12-year-old girl with no hope in an institution in Bulgaria and now she’s having an impact on our world. It’s beyond changing our family, hopefully it’s changing a community and the world. It’s beyond just selling her art, that’s such a small part of it, she’s inspiring us to do more and be more.”

The family is battling misconceptions of Down syndrome and special needs on multiple fronts — through Sevy Marie’s art, Sandal Gap Studios and Lisa’s motto “Ninjas don’t count chromosomes” on American Ninja Warrior. (And between you and me… I think Archie should hit the runway as a model and further represent the special needs community. If you don’t believe me, check out Lisa’s Instagram and you’ll see)

“I feel like we’re right on the verge of something amazing for the special needs community in Houston,” Lisa says. 

There lies a bright future for the Eicher family and Sevy Marie Art. Momager, Lisa Eicher, doesn’t plan to take their outright success for granted.

“After we did her first show in L.A. this past weekend we’ve learned a lot and we have so much more appreciation for artists and the amount of work that goes into all of this. We’re definitely going to start doing more shows regularly, both local and around the country.  We’ve already had tons of people reach out wanting to show Sevy Marie Art. Right now, we’re at a place that we need to take a step back and make sure we’re doing everything right by her.

“We don’t want to take away from how special Sevy and her art is, but we also want to create a movement — a forever mark on this world for Sevy Marie Art and Sandal Gap Studios.”

It’s about more than awareness and vocalizing the problems with our society — it’s about bridging the gap between the two communities and inspiring a connection that can cause change.

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