Iowa Artist Fellow DJ Savarese.

Fostering Acceptance through ‘Artful Activism’

Iowa Culture
Iowa Arts Council


For DJ Savarese, communicating through poetry has been a transformative experience and way of expressing his most authentic self.

Savarese, a 2022 Iowa Artist Fellowship recipient, is a familiar presence on the literary scene and as a public presenter. The Iowa City-based and nationally-recognized writer, producer and teacher also identifies as an alternatively communicating synesthete, an apraxic autistic, or a person with a rare neurological condition, known as synesthesia, that affects sensory perception.

Savarese’s journey has helped hone his skills as a writer and with communicating in alternative ways.

“I cannot just open my mouth and speak,” he said. “Instead, images ferment and sensations collide before spilling out in intricate patterns of sound and syntax.”

With poetry as his primary medium, Savarese harnesses the power of language to craft inclusive narratives that often evoke feelings beyond what words can capture, providing the audience with a perspective of what creating with apraxia is like. Artful expression becomes unbound by the traditional cadence of speech.

“Poetry is my native language, it’s what lured me into literacy, “ he said. “Foregrounding the sensorial and metaphoric, it offers the closest alphabetic translation to my experience.”

Savarese often uses the phrase “Artful Activism” to describe the blurred boundaries between his creative work and his efforts to promote inclusion for alternatively communicating people and neurodiverse learners.

“(I) use this phrase to“change people’s misperceptions and unfounded assumptions about the way society segregates humans from other humans and even humans from the Earth,” Savarese said.

“Artful Activism” can be seen as a form of resistance and ”allows us not just to exist in the world we’re given, but to create new ways of being for and with ourselves and others.” Savarese said.

This is a common theme found in Savarese’s work and is notably seen in his Peabody award-winning, Emmy-nominated documentary, “Deej, Inclusion shouldn’t be a Lottery,” which he co-produced. The documentary features four poems visually represented by illustrious animation.

While Savarese is a nationally recognized artist and activist, he considers Iowa home. The artist was adopted into an Iowa family — at 8 years old — and raised in the state before leaving to pursue his dream of a college education and attend Oberlin College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a double-major in anthropology and creative writing.

Following the completion of his studies, he returned to Iowa and now lives in Iowa City where he hopes to “re-root” by connecting with others across the state.

With the recent fellowship from the Iowa Arts Council, Savarese will have the stability to explore other mediums of artistic expression and introduce a curriculum aimed at fostering a greater understanding of neurodiverse people.

Poetry “offers an opening of the mind through metaphor, which seeks commonalities between seemingly disparate things,” Savarese said. “In doing so, it tells us something we might not have known about either thing individually.”

– Meghan Anderson, Iowa Arts Council



Iowa Culture
Iowa Arts Council

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources.