Studio for artists with disabilities expands into ceramics after $300,000 donation

South Side nonprofit Project Onward expects to have around 25 ceramicists working out of the new studio.

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Cherylle Booker works on a clay sculpture at the Project Onward studio for ceramics at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St. Project Onward, a nonprofit studio for artists with disabilities, is opening a new ceramics studio at the art center.

Cherylle Booker works on a clay sculpture at the Project Onward studio for ceramics at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Cherylle Booker isn’t a typical ceramics artist. She can fashion and fire flatware, but she’s known for hand-shaped expressionist pieces inspired by mythology.

“That imagery can contain a lot of wisdom,” she said, holding a mask rendered in bright primary colors with hair like Medusa’s.

The 38-year-old is an artist with Project Onward, a nonprofit founded in 2004 to support artists with developmental disabilities or mental illness. Booker experiences PTSD.

She’s the only ceramicist out of 56 artists working in the 6,000-square-foot studio inside the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St.

The nonprofit, however, plans to change that, with help from a $300,000 donation earlier this year from the Virginia Groot Foundation.

Cherylle Booker talks about a piece she made inspired by an African myth. The 38-year-old is an artist with Project Onward, a nonprofit studio for artists with disabilities at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St. The nonprofit is opening a new ceramics studio at the art center.

Cherylle Booker, an artist with Project Onward, talks about a piece she made inspired by an African myth.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Paid out in $100,000 installments over the next three years, the donation will be used to build a ceramics studio where 25 new artists will work.

The first installment went toward opening a 1,000-square-foot ceramics studio on the floor above the main studio in October.

It won’t have a kiln — the ovenlike chamber used to harden pottery at temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit — until next year, but tables have been set up where Booker has already started shaping new pieces.

“Having a space specifically for this is going to make a big difference,” Booker said. “I’ll be able to experiment, make larger pieces and let my imagination run wild.”

Booker has been with the nonprofit since 2018. In that time, she’s limited herself to smaller pieces that can easily be placed in nooks to dry.

Even then, her pieces — which sell for close to $1,000 — have been at risk. Several snake heads were broken off the Medusa mask, for instance, after it was knocked down.

For now, Booker can use the kiln at another studio in the building, but it’s in high demand; she sometimes must wait a month to get a single piece fired.

When Booker joined the studio, she was supposed to branch out into drawing, said executive director Nancy Gomez, but eventually they realized she was too drawn to ceramics.

Gomez said they have had to turn away a number of ceramics artists who wanted to join the studio.

Cherylle Booker (from left), executive director Nancy Gomez and Janno Juguilon inside the ceramic studio space at Project Onward, a nonprofit for artists with disabilities.

Cherylle Booker (from left), Project Onward executive director Nancy Gomez and Janno Juguilon at Project Onward’s budding ceramics studio at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“Honestly, we couldn’t afford to have any more,” Gomez said. “Clay’s expensive, glazes are expensive. You need a lot of space. It is messy.”

Artists go through a stringent application process to join the studio. Besides having a disability, they must be able to get along with the other artists in the studio — and their work has to be good enough to sell.

The nonprofit covers the cost of supplies but keeps 50% of proceeds from sales. The remaining 50% isn’t enough for the artists to live on, Gomez said, but it’s enough to supplement what they might make otherwise or receive in disability benefits.

Since opening the studio, Project Onward has been accepting applications for ceramicists via its website, Gomez said. It hasn’t taken on any new artists, but a few of the nonprofit’s other artists have used the new studio to delve into the medium.

“I want to experience what other artists experience,” said Janno Juguilon, a Northwest Side resident who’s worked with the nonprofit since 2014.

Primarily a painter, the 29-year-old makes highly detailed cardboard sculptures. He learned ceramics years ago at Northeastern Illinois University.

Janno Juguilon stands next to some of his ceramics at the Project Onward studio for ceramics at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St.

Janno Juguilon displays some of his ceramics at the Project Onward studio for ceramics at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“I can’t wait to experience it more and get more time on the wheel,” he said.

Standing in the studio, Juguilon and Booker admire a teapot Juguilon made. Because they are using a borrowed kiln, they can’t control the temperature of it, meaning some glazes go awry.

As a result, Juguilon’s pot has the knobby texture of a gourd.

“They never said all teapots need to be the same,” he said.

“I love it,” Booker said. “It’s got personality.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

Janno Juguillon holds a few ceramics at the Project Onward studio at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St.

Janno Juguilon, primarily a painter, holds a few of his ceramic creations at the Project Onward studio at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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