Talented artists with disabilities excel in program

March 8, 2009 7:29:38 AM PDT
Project Onward, an outlet for talented artists with disabilities, is making significant inroads in the artistic community.The project grew out of the City of Chicago's Gallery 37 program and was set up to provide the 'next step' for artist with disabilities. Today, it's not just a division of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs, but it also represents the best of shows among disabled artists.

Most of the artists are self-directed and have their own styles and methods of working.

"The artists, when they come to our program, are already practicing artists. So, they already have a certain vision and style and technical abilities. So, we work with what they've already got," said Rob Lentz, the program director for Project Onward.

Lentz says artists 18 years and older can participate.

"We are very selective. We're a rather small program. We work with about 30 artists with a variety of special needs from autism to mental illness of one kind of another," he said. "We get referrals from other agencies from individuals, [and] also from gallery owners who work with artists with disabilities."

The work of Kenneth Williams, one of the artists in the program, is influenced by different Chicago scenes.

"The area I grew up in, which is Englewood, as a little boy, I started drawing at the age of 5. I was looking around my neighborhood when there was a lot of vacant lots and boarded up buildings and what not. So, I took a particular interest in doing art from there," Williams said.

Fernando Ramirez is another artist. Like Kenneth, he started drawing at a young age.

"I started drawing when I was five years gold. [I] didn't really start painting until I got into high school," Ramirez said.

His most recent work is of President Obama.

"I think I finally got it right. Nobody said anything like, 'It looks not like him.' I'm going to do a family one, you know, a whole family one next, once they get the dog," said the artist.

Although Lentz says he has great respect for all the artists in the program, one of his favorite is Louis Demarco.

"He's an artists with autism who just has a lot of ideas and has a very complicated imaginary world that he depicts in his drawings," said Lentz.

The artists' works are sold at the Gallery 37 store and in their studio, which is located in the Chicago Cultural Center.

"We do art fairs and gallery exhibits all over the city, and actually, all over the world. We have one artists who's had a show in Paris last year," Lentz said.

"I'm very elated to be a part of Project Onward because I can't think of any better representation," Williams said.

Project Onward has a number of exhibitions scheduled for the upcoming months, and artists' works are for sale. The studio are located at 78 East Washington Avenue in the Chicago Cultural Center.

For more information, go to www.projectonward.org