Monthly Archives: December 2013

Project Onward

DSCN0507I had the privilege to visit Project Onwardin Chicago. I was curious to see a collective artist studio in operation. I have heard so much about Creative Growth in California and I understood that Project Onward was developed with similar goals. Their mission statement:

Project onward supports the career development of adult artists with mental and developmental disabilities. Artists receive work space, materials and professional guidance as well as exhibition opportunities and 60% from artwork sales.

For many adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness, social life can be challenging. In the studio, gallery and outside events, artists develop important personal and professional relationships which create lasting impact on the people who engage with the artists and the artists themselves.

Supporting Project Onward means you are broadening our community, giving our artists the chance to meet and interact with new people and offering opportunities for our artists to develop their artistic careers.

(I truly wish we could discard the notion that outsider artists are those with mental health and developmental disabilities. But I digress. I will save my exploration of this topic for my MA thesis.)

Project Onward has recently moved to a new location. The down side is that it’s a long way for those without a car (57 bus stops, to be exact); the upside is that it has oodles of space. The workshop itself is a room full of tables for the artists to work.  Project Onward can accommodate about 20 artists (if I remember correctly) and interested artists apply with a sample of their artwork. At the moment there are about 15 artists at work – 14 men and 1 woman. Artwork ranges from detailed pencil drawings to beautiful oils. Artwork is for sale, and the prices are more than reasonable. I went to Project Onward on my last day in Chicago. If my suitcases weren’t bursting and my credit card wasn’t ready to catch fire, I would have bought 5 or 6 pieces of artwork. The best I could do was to keep a wish list of work that I hope to buy some day. Check out the artists’ work on their website.

One of the fun features of Project Onward is that an artist of your choosing will do your portrait for $20. I asked to sit for Adam E. Hines, a young man in his late 20s. He was delighted to be asked and we had an interesting chat while he was working.

I learned two things about Adam. First, Adam is the lead singer in an R&B band, DHF Express. Second, Adam has a remarkable memory. It seems that he remembers everything – images, conversations, information – everything. Of course I don’t know if that is true, but it sure seemed so. I noticed a collection of artwork by his desk and sorted through them while he was working. I noticed a painting of a Vancouver  (Canada) landmark – the Pan Pacific hotel, with its distinctive “sails” above the conference centre. I asked Adam if he had been to Vancouver. No.  So why did he get the idea to paint this building? He said he saw it in a magazine or on TV or something and remembered it. The other paintings were of other city scenes from around the world. Although Adam has not travelled to these places, he takes virtual journeys to them through his artwork. And not only did he remember the name of the friend that I was with, he remembered the name of her grandson, whom he did a portrait for THREE YEARS AGO!  I’m one of those people who can’t remember the name of someone I’ve just met, so I was more than envious…

DSCN0578So, my portrait. What do you think? I should smile more, and I should get Botox for my wrinkled brow. But I was kind of flattered – my clothes match nicely, my hair looks neat, and I have a fresh application of red lipstick. And I’m #1.  I will remember to keep it real.

Discovering Prison Art

DSCN0485I have heard about art made by inmates (usually called “prison art”) since I started researching outsider art. Some authors include prison art in the broader category of outsider art because it is made by people who are isolated and on the margins of society. I had never seen prison art before yesterday.


Yesterday in Chicago, I saw a flyer advertising a sale of folk and outsider art at someone’s home. Great selection and discount prices were promised. So, of course, I had to go. (I have already had to buy another suitcase to accommodate all the books I have bought, so why not…?)  I arrived at Lynne’s large apartment and discovered an entire museum-sized collection of artwork she has acquired over the past 40-odd years. It wouldn’t be right to call Lynne a hoarder (at least not now) because the artwork had been carefully arranged, with the help of an assistant, over the past 3 months.  The collection was arranged in categories – Mexican retablos hung on the fireplace, folk art carvings lined the top of the bookcase, and paintings, paintings, and more paintings were stacked in piles along the walls. But that’s not all. There were hundreds of vintage Santa statues, hobo art, face jugs, vases, whirligigs, paint-by-number paintings (really???) and, well, you name it and it was somewhere in that apartment.

There were many things I had never seen before. Like, for instance, who knew that boxes could be made from toothpicks or that people collected sequined fruit? And then there was the prison art. There were stacks of drawings and paintings by Ford – apparently a well-known artist in that genre. His work is confidently and loosely drawn – sometimes in black and white, and sometimes with colour splashed in a few areas. Many of his images were of Adam and Eve, snake and apple included.

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Another artist creates little circular ceramic containers, with removable lids. The lids are decorated with ceramic tools, guns, etc. When you remove the lid, you can peer down into a little round prison cell, with one or two people, a bed, toilet and sink. At first glance, you might think you were looking at a cozy interior scene of a tiny house. Then you realize how small the space really is. A world within a world within a world.

I asked Lynne how her prison art collection came to be. She said that many years ago she became interested in the genre and she started visiting prisons. Apparently all prisons have art programs and their work is often hung in the prison entrance. She literally walked into prisons, looked at the art, then asked to speak with the art program director. She was able to choose work that she felt had merit and collect other work by those particular inmates. She sold the work privately or though art galleries; the proceeds went directly into the artist’s prison account for their personal use.

Lynne sometimes went into the prisons to speak with the artists directly. She said it was a peculiar experience to be the only woman in a men’s prison, to walk down halls and have metal doors slam shut after her. She stopped doing that after one inmate became irate that she was not taking his work. From hearing Lynne describe her experiences, you could see the enormous amount of respect she has for these artists and her genuine interest in their work. I asked about artwork produced by female inmates because I only saw one painting by Inez Nathaniel Walker. She explained that art programs are normally in institutions where the inmates have long-term sentences, and those are typically men. Women tend to be incarcerated for shorter terms, and they have less access to art programs.