Empowering Communities

Artists Paint Bright Futures Through Project Onward

March 16, 2017

Trains represent freedom to artist James Allen. The romantic idea of travel, and escape, are themes that influence the drawings he began creating at the age of 5.

“I spent time with my dad in Mississippi and used to watch the trains go by. I always wondered where they were heading,” he says. “I wanted to work on a train, but I started drawing them instead and never stopped.”

James Allen, courtesy of Project Onward.

James Allen, Courtesy of Project Onward.

James, who was born in Chicago, is also inspired by Chicago’s “L” trains, specifically their speed and distinctive sound. His pieces have been featured at art festivals and galleries in New York, Paris and in Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

James is an artist at Project Onward, a Chicago-based nonprofit that supports the professional development of talented individuals who face autism, Down syndrome, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and other challenges.

His work, and that of other remarkable artists, can be seen at the Project Onward studio and gallery located on the 4th floor of the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St. in Chicago.

Project Onward artwork can also be seen at ComEd’s Chicago Training Center as part of a partnership established between Project Onward and ComEd in 2015.

Since 2015, Project Onward artists have been creating art to beautify ComEd’s Chicago Training Center, which is located at 3536 S. Iron St., in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. The initial collection was Bridgeport-themed and featured sites and scenes from that neighborhood, familiar to residents and visitors alike.

All 23 Bridgeport-themed paintings, drawings and three-dimensional pieces were auctioned on Feb. 8 at an event sponsored and hosted by ComEd to benefit Project Onward.  The occasion raised nearly $12,000.

Project Onward is replacing those works at the Chicago Training Center with a 2017 energy-themed grouping that includes pieces by veteran Project Onward artists including James.

James’ artistic contribution to the Chicago Training Center features a locomotive of immense power and energy of movement emerging from the Board of Trade building, a place of great economic energy in Chicago’s business district. Chicago’s beautiful skyline is also visible in the piece.

Creating a piece of artwork featuring electric energy wasn’t much of a stretch for native Chicagoan Elizabeth Barren. Her work usually incorporates flamboyant textures and vibrant colors inspired by fashion, jazz, gospel music, block parties and family gatherings. Elizabeth’s contribution to the 2017 exhibition at the Chicago Training Center is no different.  “Lights Up” is a stylish portrait of a woman encased in a box brightened by flashing lights.

“I want my art to give people joy, peace and happiness,” says Elizabeth, who has been with Project Onward since 2013. She started drawing at 9 years old and credits her mother, an artist, and her grandmother, a quilter, for her artistic abilities.

Many of the artists in Project Onward are self-taught, and all must have artistic abilities to be accepted into the program, says Mark Jackson, studio director.

“Artists are selected based on their skill – their technical ability, their originality and their desire to pursue art,” Mark says. Once accepted into the program, Project Onward gives participants studio space, art supplies and encouragement to pursue their artistic vision. The program serves 50 artists from more than 30 Chicago neighborhoods.

“Our artists create ‘outsider art’ which is a term used for art created by people outside of the mainstream who are not influenced by the mainstream,” Mark says.

Mark said that he and the Project Onward artists are excited about their relationship with ComEd because it enables its artists to reach a wider audience.

Project Onward, which originated in 2004 through the City of Chicago’s Gallery 37, became an independent nonprofit in 2013. Its studio and gallery are open to the public from 11am to 5pm Tuesday through Saturday and until 9pm for receptions on the third Friday of each month.

Project Onward is financed by contributions and grants as well as by art sales. The public is encouraged to support the artists by donating and purchasing their works. For more information, visit the Project Onward website.

ComEd’s Chicago Training Center was built as a learning facility for current and future energy workers. It houses a Smart Energy Hub, a one-of-a kind interactive station designed to educate the public about electricity. Book a field trip.