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Onward and Upward: Artists with Disabilities Make a Go of it at The Cultural Center

By Michele Lenni in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 14, 2011 8:30PM

Safiya Hameed paints at Project Onward, a studio and gallery located in the Chicago Cultural Center dedicated to the creative growth of artists with mental and developmental disabilities.Photos by J. GEIL VIA -
After the tragic events that took place in Arizona this past weekend, the issue of mental health, people's inability to recognize or treat it (and the obvious question- where should these people be placed?) has become a hot button issue for many. Inflammatory sentiments questioning how "these people roam the streets" seem to have been the cry across the nation. The issue of mental illness has long been a grossly misunderstood and polarizing one that many would prefer to just sweep under the rug than deal with or educate themselves on further. The stigma behind such maladies as Schizophrenia, Autism, Down Syndrome and the like are now, more than ever, present within our consciousness.

Project Onward is an organization determined not only to provide a safe environment for these individuals to spread their creative wings, but to also de-stigmatize what have become dirty words: mental and developmental disabilities. The organization was started when two Art Institute alumni and employees at Gallery 37, Rob Lentz and Mark Jackson, saw the potential in the free-flowing, stream of conscience creativity these artists displayed in the work they did at their gallery. Project Onward was born with the intent to provide studio space, art supplies, and professional guidance to emerging artists with mental and/or physical disabilities in a communal workshop environment. "We're here to demystify disability. They’re artists first, and have other issues second," Lentz said to the Chicago Journal.

With eight of the original arts receiving acclaim beyond their humble space, Project Onward outgrew Gallery 37 and needed a new home for their growing group of creatives. In 2005 they moved across the street to the Chicago Cultural Center. When the group grew to over 30 members, the Center stepped up and offered their space that formerly housed the Museum of Broadcast Communication. The artist must adhere to a strict regimen of what a traditional art school requires to be admitted: quality portfolio, strong vision and desire to grow artistically. Students are happy to comply and flourish in this hyper-creative environment where they not only create art, but have the chance to sell their wares.

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Self Portrait, Fernando Ramirez
When we had the chance to look at some of the organization's vast portfolio we were astounded by what we saw. For instance, there's Fernando Ramirez. Ramirez has taken the bright, glowing colors of his native Mexico and translated them into portraits and murals that have been commissioned by the Mayor and Maggie Daley, Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg, former Governor George Ryan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Rahm Emanuel.

Another artist that has been sought-after by galleries and collectors alike is James Allen. Allen's photo-realistic paintings of steam trains and subway cars seem to leap off the canvas with an attention to detail that many painters strive for in their work. His work has been shown at Judy Saslow Gallery in Chicago, at the New York Outsider Art Fair, and in the international exhibition “Eloge du Dessin” (“In Praise of Drawing”) at Halle Saint Pierre in Paris, France. Allen’s May, 2008 voyage to Europe inspired the drawings for his solo exhibition “Paris Sketches” at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Project Onward Gallery.

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TVG, James Allen

We recommend that you follow Lentz and Jackson's lead and work to fight the negativity surrounding mental illness. You can visit the Project Onward's Gallery or donate to their organization. Small steps to a better world, and better people in it.

The Chicago Cultural Center and Project Onward are located at 78 E. Washington Street. You can follow them on Facebook at