Jacqueline Cousins, 30, who has autism, works on one of the many illustrations she has made at Project Onward. (Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune / July 9, 2014)

Portrait slams — think artwork rather than poetry — have become a signature of Project Onward, a nonprofit Bridgeport studio and gallery that supports the career development of over 30 artists who have mental health challenges.
The portrait slam last month was more experimental than previous events. The artists' models, like many on fashion runways, went by one name, like the mixed-ethnicity Buckley, and Bianca with her exotic dreadlocks falling nearly to the floor.
But to the organizers' relief, no claws came out, though all of the models were pets, not people: a cat named Claude, a rabbit named Woodsey and the puli Bianca among them. All species considered, the event was a smash success, earning the nine Project Onward artists who participated over $2,000 and producing more than 50 pet portraits for patrons.
The event is one more reason that Project Onward this year is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its founding by three veterans of Gallery 37 downtown. Rob Lentz, Mark Jackson and Colleen Sims worked in Gallery 37's arts programs for youths.
"As our artists aged out of Gallery 37, we got worried about a lot of our people who wouldn't be going on to postsecondary education or regular jobs but had amazing talent," said Lentz, Project Onward's executive director.
In the past decade, challenges such as autism have gotten lots of attention, "so everyone is kind of catching up with us," Lentz said. Even so, the spotlight tends to be on children.
"These people do grow up," Sims said.
"And they still have special needs," Lentz said. "We as a society are not equipped to deal with them."
Jacqueline Cousins, who is 30 and has autism, was commissioned to create the portrait of Bianca.
"When I was 13, I told my mom I wanted to be an artist, and she supported me all the way through that," Cousins said, pulling out an iPad to show her illustrations, many produced in Project Onward's studios, which relocated last year from the Cultural Center to the 4th floor of the Bridgeport Art Center.
Project Onward provides materials, work space, marketing support and exhibition opportunities. The artists receive 50 percent of each sale of their work.
"I've known Rob and Mark since I was 16," said artist Fernando Ramirez, now 37, who has bipolar disorder. "They kept inviting me to join Project Onward."
He did. He since has sold over 100 pieces of his artwork, he said.
Project Onward spokesman Andres Torres said the organization welcomes the discussion of the artists' disabilities, provided they give their blessing.
"We like to advance the idea that a challenge in one area of one's life doesn't preclude positive personal growth and career advancement," Torres said.
Desiree Lynch, of Hyde Park, came to the pet portrait picnic with her 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, her tortoise, Oliver, and their dogs, Clover (a Labradoodle) and Buckley (a mix). Two of Lynch's four children have special needs. Her almost-8-year-old has autism, and her 5-year-old has epilepsy.
"As their mom, I'm not thinking past 18 right now," Lynch said. "But someday I'll have to. I think it's extremely important what they're doing here."
Portrait slam
On Thursday (July 17th), Project Onward artists will do another portrait slam — with people this time — from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Navy Pier's Festival Hall A as part of Access Chicago.
Project Onward's Bridgeport studio (200 W. 35th St.) also celebrates new openings on the third Friday of each month. Friday's features "Shake, Rattle & Roll," a tribute to Chicago's musical heritage, along with the continuing "Pets on Parade" exhibit. Drinks and light refreshments are served to those exploring the galleries and watching Project Onward artists at work in the studio. Other galleries in the Bridgeport Art Center are also open later on third Fridays.
For details, see projectonward.org