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Wesley Willis, Brother in Spotlight as Project Onward Moves to Bridgeport

By Casey Cora | September 18, 2013 7:43am
 New to Bridgeport, Project Onward aims to provide artists with work space and materials, as well as opportunities for exhibition and sale of their work. 
Project Onward Artists
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BRIDGEPORT — Project Onward’s recent move from the Chicago Cultural Center to a floor within a massive Bridgeport warehouse means much more space for the nonprofit’s developmentally and mentally disabled artists.

“The Cultural Center was great for visibility and foot traffic, but we were pretty limited in what kind of art the artists could make … so the idea of being part of an artist community [at the Bridgeport Art Center] is very exciting,” said Rob Lentz, who heads the 9-year-old organization.

The group will celebrate its new digs on Friday with the premiere of “Joy Bus Rides” a first-of-its-kind exhibition featuring artwork from the famed, late schizophrenic performer Wesley Willis and his younger brother Ricky, a Project Onward artist who shares an ability with his late brother to create artwork depicting the city’s infrastructure from memory.

Ricky Willis is “a living Google Earth, able to pinpoint virtually any building in the City of Chicago and tell you how to get there on the bus,” Project Onward leaders say.

Next month, the group will host a screening of "Wesley Willis’s Joyrides," a 2008 documentary following Willis, who gained a cult following for drawing Chicago street scenes and penning far-out, obscene lyrics with his band The Wesley Willis Fiasco.

Project Onward was founded in 2004 as part of the Gallery 37 initiative, a job-training program started by the city in the early 1990s. A year later, it became part of city’s now-disbanded Department of Cultural Affairs and moved into space at the cultural center, where it eventually expanded to two floors.

The group aims to provide artists with work space and materials, as well as opportunities for exhibition and sale of their work. The group’s artists pocket 60 percent of the sales.

While Project Onward’s eight-year tenure at the cultural center yielded interesting projects, including a popular series in which patrons of the Downtown institution could sit for portraits, the arrangement also robbed artists of their privacy, Lentz said.  

That shouldn’t be a problem at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St., where they’ll soon move into their very own 13,000-square-foot room that will include a studio, art gallery, kiln, woodworking shop and offices.

The move isn’t quite complete. The artists are working in a big room at the art center while constructions crews finish their new fourth-floor headquarters.

It’s where artists like Chuckie Johnson spend their days creating art with the goal of making a sale.

Johnson is a 72-year-old folk artist discovered by Project Onward while painting in Grant Park six years ago. His little corner of the room contains a collage of his work — colorful watercolor portraits of celebrities and everyday people, mostly drawn from imagination.

“Sometimes I just see what I see,” he said.

Sitting nearby, artist Motesum “Moe” Mansur said finding Project Onward gave him purpose. A 27-year-old Burbank resident with Asperger’s Syndrome, the author and artist said he used to peddle his art by walking into restaurants, a tactic that “came up short, very short.”

Now, with guidance from Lentz and the nonprofit's other full-time staffers, he’s been steered into drawing what sells. Currently, that's a series of pencil drawings depicting houses from a 1975 book called "Old Chicago Homes."

“It’s been a godsend to me,” he said.

Project Onward is in the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St. The “Joy Bus Ride” exhibition and preview party is from 6-10 p.m. Friday; the screening of “Wesley Willis’s Joyrides” is 6 p.m. Oct. 12.