Cloud Chart #4 by Louis DeMarco
Cloud Chart #4 by Louis DeMarco

Early for a jazz concert at the Chicago Cultural Center a couple months ago, I wandered into the Project Onward gallery, met artist Fernando Ramirez, and agreed to come back after the show to sit for a portrait. The starting rate for a single likeness at the gallery is $10, but this was a double of my husband and myself, executed in colored pencil. Inspired by a sample piece that Ramirez had on display, showing President Obama set against iconic images of Hawaii and Chicago, I also paid a little extra to get a skyline in the background. The total cost was $30, and I’m hugely fond of the result.

“This won’t be you,” Ramirez, 33, warned us at the start of our 40-minute sitting. “It’ll be my interpretation of you.” And he was right to prepare us. In the same way that the green rectangular pendant I was wearing that day morphed into a green oval pendant, the finished image, filtered through the artist’s sensibility, both does and doesn’t look like us. And therein lies its fascination. As Ramirez put it, “If you wanted an exact copy, you could take a photo.”

Self Portrait (Bandito) by Fernando Ramirez

Ramirez is one of 33 artists with mental and/or developmental disabilities who work regularly in the big open studio adjacent to the gallery, at the south end of the Cultural Center’s main floor. Born into a family of artists in Mexico, he’s been a Chicagoan since the age of three and turned down a chance to go to the School of the Art Institute because, he says, it seemed unaffordable even with a partial scholarship. He’s suffered from recurring bouts of reality-bending mental illness since a younger brother’s suicide about a decade ago. “Now I can spot it coming on,” he says, “and I know I have to settle down and get some medical help, and it’ll either go away or I have to check myself into the hospital.” His richly colored figurative images are inspired by history, myth, and Botticelli. He says he loves to work in the studio, where he feeds off the energy of “the other guys.”

According to program director Rob Lentz, about a third of the Project Onward artists are autistic. The rest struggle with a variety of other disorders. They produce artworks under the supervision of Lentz and Mark Jackson, School of the Art Institute grads who founded Project Onward in 2004 and run it with a couple of part-time employees and an assortment of interns and volunteers. The artists receive 70 percent of whatever’s paid for their work when it sells in the gallery.

Eyeballs and Mouths by James Hall

Lentz and Jackson were both staffers at Gallery 37, a city arts program that serves 14- to 21-year-old Chicagoans. But Lentz says the pieces that interested them most were created by the kids with disabilities. “When you look at art by teenagers, you see a lot of the same stuff,” Lentz says. They’re cartoons and the sort of things assigned in art class: still lifes, figure studies. “After you’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of those, along comes [work by] a person with autism who’s coming from a completely different place. It just announces itself. There’s no comparison.”

Lentz says that sort of art—often rough and characterized by an outsider sensibility—was unusual at Gallery 37. At the same time, some of the most talented disabled artists were aging out of Gallery 37. “We wanted those artists to be recognized” and continue to have a place to work, Lentz recalls. Project Onward began as a part of Gallery 37 and now operates as a Department of Cultural Affairs program.

“The thing we’re looking for is spontaneous creativity,” Lentz says. “Work you do because you want to or feel compelled to, not because there’s a project or assignment or you’re copying something.” Authenticity and originality are its hallmarks, and—as in nearly all outsider art—the artist’s story is part of the picture. “We put it out there,” Lentz says. Though Project Onward is often mistaken for an art therapy program, where confidentiality would be an issue, it’s not. “Our whole thing is to reduce stigma—to say, ‘This is what these artists are faced with and this is how they overcome it.’ Talking about their condition is part of the point.”

Art by Project Onward participants offers a window onto autism and the other conditions that inform it, Lentz says. One example he cites is the work of Louis DeMarco, whom Lentz calls a “true savant”—a person with islands of extraordinary ability. At 25, DeMarco writes music and plays in a rock band. He’s also a gifted mimic with near-perfect recall of sounds and voices—stimuli that can claim his attention at any instant. Confronted with disorderly and often threatening commotion, he’s created a series of “Cloud Charts” in which various behaviors and states of mind—obsession, mumbles, laziness, burps—are depicted as puffs of different colors. “Head Pressures” is olive green, “Distraction” is red. In a self-portrait, DeMarco wears a shiny orange hard hat that he says guards him against any attempt to interfere with his thoughts and memories. And a group of pieces depicts his imaginary island kingdom of Loudemar, which has a fortress at its center surrounded by a border guard of talking animal “protectors.”

There’s an abundance of work by other Project Onward artists on display in the studio, including a rogue’s gallery of menacing ink-on-paper faces by David Jarman, witty bordello scenes by Tony “Bright” Davis, Michael Smith’s jewel-toned drawings of waffle-patterned people, and James Hall’s eerie web of what looks like eyeballs and mouths painted in acrylic on canvas. In the hall outside the gallery is a handsome new work by Ramirez—his self-portrait as a glowering revolutionary, complete with smoking guns and sombrero.

Prices range up to $2,000. Samples can be seen on the Project Onward website (