Project Onward Helps Adults Artists with Disabilities Grow, Creatively | WBEZ
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Project Onward Helps Adults Artists with Disabilities Grow, Creatively

April is Autism Awareness Month. For those who suffer from this mysterious condition, social and verbal communication can be tough. As if in compensation though - autism often comes along with enormous creativity, in areas like drawing or painting. In fact, many autistic adults think in images. One Chicago group focuses on helping adults with autism develop their artistic talents. For WBEZ, Julianne Hill has this report.

Exhibit:
Islands in the Stream
Through May 31
Chicago Cultural Center

It's about eleven in the morning, and artist Louie DeMarco rushes into a studio tucked behind the stairs of the Chicago Cultural Center. He pulls out his art to start working. Louis makes signs with bright yellow letters set against a sky full of puffy clouds. He calls them “words to live by.”

DEMARCO: One of the signs says, 'you're thoughts are not being be forgotten, regretted, altered, erased, replaced, negated , neglected or escaped at all.'

Louie is an artist with autism, and he works through Project Onward.

DEMARCO: I like making art because it makes me feel good.

It's a program run by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. Its purpose: to create a meaningful artistic outlet for about 30 adult artists with disabilities, ranging from mental illness to autism.

ROB LENTZ: Adults with autism tend to be far more invisible because there is such an emphasis – as there should be – on childhood autism. That's when it's diagnosed. And that's where the support services need to be. But the fact is, children with autism grow up and they are still autistic and they have very specific needs.

Rob Lentz is program director for Project Onward.

HILL: How do you think autism colors their work?
LENTZ: Well, the artists with autism are instructive to look at. I think they do a good job of expressing the full range of the spectrum and they do sort of exemplify that people with autism don't represent any one type of being. There are very high functioning individuals in our program who produce very meticulously detailed and I think very accessible art work. And then there are artists who I would think would fall on the lower end of the scale but I think their art is very compelling at look at because it comes from a place that's hard to describe.

Project Onward is not an art therapy program. But art can help people with autism. Dr. Ted Rubenstein with the Chicago School of Professional Psychology...

RUBENSTEIN: Many, many people with autism tend to think in images and in terms of whole thoughts that can be constructed through images. So right there is a reason why art and the creation of art can be so powerful for them, because it's a way of their expression.

Rubenstein's research focuses on the use of art therapy. He believes a workshop can offer structure for creativity, and give people with autism a voice.

RUBENSTEIN: One of the purposes of art is to encourage a social dialogue, a dialogue about what's happening in the community. So any time anyone is encouraged and brought into the community to create art, they're brought into the conversation at the community level and their voices are heard in the public square.

At Project Onward, Lentz helps the artists develop their individual skills, and facilitate their individual styles.

LENTZ: We sort of craft a program for each individual artist that sort of suits their needs and suits their talent, and also to provide the space for them.

For Adam Hines, that means encouraging his love of the game show Jeopardy, and intense color.

HILL: You like bright colors?
ADAM HINES: Yes, I do. I love bright colors because they want me to see the beautiful colors of the rainbow, pretty in the sky.

Harnessing these artists' skills inspires Lentz.

LENTZ: My hope for these artists is that their artwork will allow them to grow in their art and achieve more independence in their lives. I am so proud of them. I'm proud of all of them. In some cases, the pride comes from a surprise at how they have developed into artists and as people.

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