Marlen Garcia: Artists with disabilities flourish in S. Side studio

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// ]]>With the stroke of a brush, artist Fernando Ramirez beautifies objects that you and I would consider garbage.

Empty bottles, for instance, became tribute pieces to famous Hispanics that were displayed in the National Museum of Mexican Art.

A bed frame and headboard dumped in an alley became a canvas for a Greek-inspired scene with a marble pattern and sold for $1,200.

“There were two people fighting for it,” he said of the bidders. “I had to do another one.”


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// ]]>I met Ramirez, 38, and his fellow artists last month at the Coyle & Herr consignment warehouse at 3031 N. Rockwell St. in the Avondale neighborhood. Once a month the shop is host to a portrait salon, known as portrait slams to the artists, open to the public. Saturday, it will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Adults, kids and sometimes their pets sit for portraits for $30 plus tax and tip. Some come with photographs they want replicated.

Proceeds go to Project Onward, a nonprofit studio and gallery in the Bridgeport neighborhood that supports the artists. At the studio, adult artists with developmental disabilities or mental illness flourish with mentoring and access to materials and space to work. Many of the artists started out in the city’s public art program at Gallery 37.

Rob Lentz, who co-founded Project Onward 11 years ago, got to know many of the artists in their teens at Gallery 37. There he formed a tight connection to artist George Zuniga, who paints portraits with a free-flowing, almost abstract quality.

“We started thinking about what might happen to George and others who were aging out of the program,” Lentz said of his motivation to open the studio.

Afflicted with autism, Zuniga, 34, isn’t cut out for our 9-to-5 working world. But he is no less an artist because of the disability.

“He’s a natural artist,” Lentz said. “There’s no artifice to what he does. It’s all right there.

“It’s difficult for him to do things by himself. He has a hard time focusing. What we do is keep him focused. If we do that, his work is amazing.”

For those of us who aren’t steeped in the art world, it can be intimidating. But the point of the portrait salons is to make art more accessible to all. That’s why it won me over.

Artists work quickly at the portrait salons, but at the Project Onward studio, they take on more complex projects, such as commissioned pieces and gallery work.

Ramirez told me many of his works landed in the home of Mayor Richard M. Daley and his late wife, Maggie, a patron of disabled artists. Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, was his most famous client.

In 1999 Ramirez painted seven pieces for the Chicago Cows on Parade Art Exhibit for $1,000 each. One sold for $29,000 at auction, he said.

A book on the exhibit left out his name, he added. But he shrugged it off.

“My signature was on the cows.”

I’ve heard that, generally speaking, artists are tortured souls, and Ramirez put it in perspective for me. “You’re only as good as your last work,” he said. “The next thing has to be better.”

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