Bright colors and distinctive murals greet visitors as they walk through the big glass doors into the gallery inside the Chicago Cultural Center.
Inside, the walls are decorated with eye-catching artwork that represents an individual’s identity. One painting that immediately catches the eye is of a Mayan princess with a long snake twirled around her curvaceous body created by artist Fernando Ramirez.
This is not just any art gallery, however, it is Project Onward, a program that allows adults with disabilities to showcase their creative talent and make a profit.
Founders Rob Lents and Mark Jackson gave birth to the art program in 2004 out of the need for disabled adults to have a venue to nurture their talent and show their art. Gallery 37 has a similar program, but once students graduate high school, they are left to wander. To fill this void, Project Onward was born in a studio at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Fernando Ramirez is quite popular because of his breathtaking portraits, vibrant colors and the Mexican roots celebrated in many of his pieces. “I’m Mexican and I think most of my ancestors were either Mayan or Aztec,” he said.
His pieces Snake Charmer and Mayan Snake Princess showcase brilliant colors and possibly resemble his ancestors. The snake in his paintings represents his birth year in the Chinese Zodiac, he said. He said his emotions sometimes alternate, and he becomes sad or angry and then paints what his emotions reflect. Ramirez has been with Project Onward for four years, after being a staff artist at Gallery 37.
Janet Gris is a volunteer who comes in two days a week to greet visitors. “You start to develop relationships the more you’re here,” said Gris. She bought three pieces on the first day.
Though all artists must be 18, some are well into their 30s. Other artists include George Zuniga, whose art displays the realism of wars. He has painted scenes from the Iraq and Afghani battles.
James Allen creates his art based upon his triumphs and daily struggle to survive. Allen mostly creates scenes that include trains resembling the ever present El trains that roam Chicago.
Project Onward’s web site describes Allen’s art, saying, “Apart from the romance of the machine, Allen’s trains are vehicles for escape, often weaving through forbidding imaginary cityscapes, and they hint at the difficulties he seeks to overcome through his art.”
Artists get a chance to display their masterpieces in the Garland hallway at the Cultural Center one at a time. Every four to five weeks the artists rotate so everyone gets an opportunity. Currently, artist David Blaisdell has his work on display.
As of now, most of the artists in Project Onward have only psychological disorders. Director Mark Jackson said people with mental illnesses and developmental disorders are their current niche. As the program continues to grow and they receive more funding, they hope to expand. “We have as many artists as we can handle,” Jackson said.
The artists at Project Onward have a range of disabilities from autism to bi-polar disorder.
Melody Williams started at Project Onward as an intern and for the past two years has been project manager. “If you are comfortable around people with disabilities, then you increase the diversity of people you know,” said Williams.
Williams graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has the desire to not teach art, but to “encourage people to be creative.”
She said, “Here everyone isn’t so concerned about fitting in anymore, which makes them more creative than many artists I know.”
Project Onward is located in the right wing of the Chicago Cultural Center on 33. E Randolph. The exhibit will continue through Jan. 2010. Admission is free.