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Creativity and Advocacy Meet at Project Onward

Larger-than-life mannequins collaged in hip hop paraphernalia greet me as I enter Project Onward, a Chicago studio and gallery dedicated to artists with mental and developmental disabilities. Bright colors sparkle in a refreshingly free aesthetic that characterizes the pieces found within, a sensory overload ranging from altered dolls to custom portraiture.  On a partially divided side of the room, artists work diligently on their projects and are available to chat upon request. “It’s a way of reducing stigma,” said program director Rob Lentz of Project Onward’s mission in a 2011 interview with WTTW, “and making people more aware of the types of disabilities people live with every day.”

Project Onward

Project Onward was founded in 2004 as an extension of Gallery 37, a youth arts employment program. Lentz was moved to create an adult branch when he noticed that many talented artists were aging out of Gallery 37.  In 2005, the Department of Cultural Affairs provided Project Onward with a studio and office space in the Chicago Cultural Center. In a previous interview with Sixty Inches from Center, Lentz noted the importance of the program’s democratic location: “The fact that our artists have disabilities puts them at a remove from the mainstream, whether it’s art or just culture at large.  And that’s why I think it’s so important that we have a place at the Cultural Center, because the Cultural Center is about just that—culture—and it’s not about divvying it up into categories in which certain people are excluded.”

Project Onward artists are recruited and referred from Gallery 37, social service providers, and art therapy programs. Applicants must be at least 18 years of age and have a documented mental or developmental disability. The Project Onward studio provides all art and framing supplies. Artists keep 70% of profits from works sold, with pieces ranging anywhere from around $15 to $1,500. The organization is partially funded by grants from the Dr. Scholl Foundation and the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation.

An estimated two to three hundred people visit Project Onward each week. During open hours, the studio is constantly bustling with creativity. With music in the air and the occasional one-man dance party, the work place is a wonderfully laid back environment.

Fernando Ramirez, Portrait as an Inca Warrior. (Photo courtesy of

I chat first with Project Onward artist Fernando Ramirez. Ramirez was born in Mexico and moved to Pilsen at the age of three. Two of his uncles were artists, and he began drawing at five. In 1995, he was offered a partial scholarship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but still found the school too expensive to attend. Ramirez worked with Gallery 37 as a teenager, was hired there as a staff artist, and graduated to Project Onward soon after its founding.

Fernando Ramirez. (Photo courtesy of

Ramirez has become a prominent figure in the gallery and takes it upon himself to make visitors feel welcome, answering questions about the program and introducing them to artists they’d like to meet. “I’m very friendly with all of the artists,” says Ramirez, “I know what inspires them and where their ideas come from, so I talk to customers about that, and it keeps sales up.” He also acts as the “welcome wagon” for new artists, acquainting them with the space, the supplies, and each other.

For the 25th anniversary of the National Museum of Mexican Art, Ramirez was hired to paint 25 bottles, one of his trademark crafts, with imagery inspired by his Mexican and Chicagoan heritage. Since December, 16 of the bottles have sold. Ramirez pulls out a bottle he’s working on now, adorned with an intricate, graffiti-like good versus evil motif. “This is the devil’s head, and an angel is going to be here,” he explains, pointing to one side of the vessel, “and people will be falling down into this abyss, a river of fire.”

Ramirez works mostly on commissions and draws about five portraits a week. On-site portraits are a heavily promoted aspect of Project Onward’s programming, and the organization holds regular “Portrait Slams” where artists are stationed specifically to create customized portraits for visitors. “In this context, art provides the common ground between people who might otherwise never encounter each other,” explains Project Onward’s Portrait Project web materials. “I like to talk to the person and get to know them before I draw them,” says Ramirez “where they came from, what they do, how they found us, and then I put that in the picture.”

Customized portraits by Project Onward artists

When commissions slow down, Ramirez pursues his own interests, namely animals and vivid portrayals of voluptuous women in urban settings. “I think all women are beautiful,” says Ramirez, “I used to live with three hippie women who would walk around all free and naked, and they let me draw them all the time. So that’s kind of where I picked up drawing women,” he laughs. Hanging above his workspace are bright, intricate colored pencil works, full scenes with compositions not unlike neoclassical allegories, usually featuring these scantily-clad subjects mid-catfight. “I like to do action shots,” Ramirez says, “I like to capture that motion.” Ramirez tells me that his narratives are inspired by “past lives,” a sentiment which is perhaps most obvious in his self-portrait as an Inca warrior. “Sometimes I don’t feel Mexican,” he says, “because I haven’t been there in so long. So I think of that as a past life.”

I ask Ramirez about the predominance of male artists at Project Onward.  “We become artists to get girls!” interjects artist Michael Bryant from his adjacent work area, “That’s why there’s more guy artists than girl artists. Most guys get into art because they can’t sing, they can’t dance, and they can’t play football.” Bryant, or as the name card on his work space reads, “Michael Angelo Ihmhotep Bryant,” is originally from Birmingham, Alabama, and moved to Chicago with his family when he was 10 years old. He began his artistic practice about 10 years ago by making “pluggers,” or invitations, for his brother’s parties, he explains, pulling out a few postcard-sized samples. He has been with Project Onward since last year.

Michael Bryant at work

Nearby sits one of Bryant’s paintings, a red and yellow calendar composition filled with names and dates. “It’s a great conversation piece, ain’t it?” asks Bryant. He explains his fascination with dates—“I found out that Richard Nixon, Jimmy Page, and Lee Van Cleef all were born on my birthday. David Bowie and Elvis Presley were born the day before, and Rod Stewart was born the day after. That’s how I started getting into calendars and who was born on which day.” He asks my birthday, and when I tell him March 6th, he looks pleased. “You know who was born on your birthday? Michelangelo, in 1475!” (I Google it later; he is correct.) I ask Bryant if he has all of these dates memorized, and he walks me over to his drawer in the artists’ shared file cabinet. The large, red leather-bound album he retrieves is a work of art in itself. Inside, like an address book, are hundreds of celebrity names and birth dates, meticulously handwritten, from Sally Field to Kurt Vonnegut. The text is supplemented by collages of pop culture icons and colorful figural sketches.  “That’s how I remember those birthdays,” says Bryant, “My birthday book.”

Pages from Bryant's sketchbook & birthday book

When I make my way to the other side of the studio, I meet Chuckie Johnson, concentrating intently on his painting of a woman walking in the clouds. Johnson has been an artist at Project Onward for five years. “I draw folk art,” says Johnson. “I mostly draw about women, the way they look, the way they feel. Sometimes I draw men too, and what they’re going through in life.” “I always try to find out what will bring people happiness,” he continues, carefully dotting white highlights on his subject’s sienna skin, “I’m always searching.” Johnson usually works in watercolor, but I’ve caught him today experimenting with acrylics. “This picture has put me through I-don’t-know-what-all,” he says, “I was thinking about it last night when I was in bed, thinking ‘I hope this picture turns out good.’ I don’t like to draw a picture just to draw it. I like for a picture to stand out. I like to bring out what I see in people.”  “I like drawing here,” Johnson says of his time at Project Onward, “I like meeting people who want to meet me, to see how I look, and to tell their friends that they met me.”

Project Onward artists may have found a safe haven, but they are aiming for the stars. Ramirez was featured on Chicago Tonight last year and has produced work for the mayor and numerous visiting dignitaries including Tony Blair. “People recognize me on the street. I feel like I’m an established artist,” says Ramirez. “I’m not trying to be famous or anything, but it’s good that people know my stuff. I also like the fact that my work is all over the world—China, England—and my name’s on them.” “I have a theory,” he continues, laughing, “that you’re only famous after you die. So I’m glad I’m leaving something behind, a legacy.” It seems these artists’ futures, like Ramirez’s lively, saturated narratives, are looking bright.

Chuckie Johnson (Photo courtesy of


Chuckie Johnson, Amateur. (Photo courtesy of

Project Onward is currently exhibiting Circle of Friends: Autism and the Social Life in observance of Autism Awareness month. The show will run at the Chicago Cultural Center through May 16th.










“Circle of Friends: Autism and The Social Life”

On view now through May 16th

At The Chicago Cultural Center

78 East Washington Street, Chicago Il

Open 10 am till 5pm

For more information visit

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1 Response to " Creativity and Advocacy Meet at Project Onward "

  1. […] Click here to read article. . . One of Michael Bryant's sketchbooks. Part of the gallery space. Custom portraits by Project Onward artists. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Categories Uncategorized […]

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