Wesley Willis's brother is among the disabled artists working at Project Onward in Bridgeport



On the fourth floor of the Bridgeport Art Center, a 13,000-square-foot studio is dotted with art in various states of completion. From one workstation to the next, the work ranges wildly in style, medium, and subject matter. One drawing table is surrounded by paintings created by Sereno Wilson, aka Glitterman, who splashes his canvases with glue and sparkles. The adjacent desk is covered in the red and blue paints that Ruby Bradford uses in her offbeat takes on Superman. Another artist, Ricky Willis, uses cardboard to sculpt elements of the cityscape—water towers, CTA buses, automobiles, high-rise towers—that look not unlike ones that inhabited the drawings of his late brother, Wesley. 

Wesley Willis's brother Ricky creates sculptures out of cardboard, glue, and tape. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Wesley Willis's brother Ricky creates sculptures out of cardboard, glue, and tape.

The studio is home to Project Onward, a nonprofit that supports adult artists with mental and developmental disabilities. The organization grew out of the youth art program Gallery 37 in 2004. “I got very concerned about a group of students who were graduating from high school and leaving the Gallery 37 program,” executive director Rob Lentz says. “We started Project Onward as a next step for those artists to continue making art at a high level.”

Among the 60 artists currently participating in the program, many are autistic or have mental illness. Project Onward provides a work space, art materials, and guidance for these artists, as well as opportunities for them to gain recognition by exhibiting and selling their work. Artists are accepted into the program based on portfolio reviews and interviews; those selected exhibit commitment and a distinctive style—qualities one would look for in any contemporary artist, Lentz explains. “But there’s something extra our artists seem to have, which is this very authentic, unique point of view that doesn’t seem to come from anywhere you can identify.” The program exists to help the artists express their individual points of view, as opposed to teaching them certain techniques or dictating what they produce.

Works by Sereno "Glitterman" Wilson (left) and George Zuniga (right). - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Works by Sereno "Glitterman" Wilson (left) and George Zuniga (right).

Project Onward showcases the participants’ art in group and solo exhibitions, the latest of which is "When I Paint My Masterpiece," which includes more than 100 works. It runs October 15-18 at the Project Onward Studio & Gallery (1200 W. 35th, fourth floor). “We really want the public to see the work, purchase the work,” Lentz says. “It’s really gratifying to send the work out into the world and have people understand it, and have it be a point of contact for people who wouldn’t ordinarily come in contact with each other.” The show's opening reception includes live music by DHF Express, a duo featuring Project Onward participants with autism, and the house band of Arts of Life, another nonprofit working with developmentally disabled artists.

Bridgeport Art Center's fourth floor is home to Project Onward Studio & Gallery. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Bridgeport Art Center's fourth floor is home to Project Onward Studio & Gallery.

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