David Lindstrom and Maureen McCabe have volunteered for Project Onward, an art studio for neurodiverse artists, for seven years.
The pandemic has caused the studio to close its regularly scheduled on-site work—but that hasn’t stopped the couple from Beverly from going the extra mile to help clients.
Just like other volunteers, Lindstrom and McCabe now deliver supplies to artists’ homes—and return to pick up their finished works that are then put up for sale.
They know that their clients, who live with a range of mental issues, need art to stay healthy.
So, since that first visit to the studio, located at the Bridgeport Art Center, they have not stopped helping.
“We fell in love with it instantly when we walked in the door,” McCabe said. “Everyone was so welcoming—the staff, the artists. It had such energy, had such friendliness. It was just an amazing place.”
Project Onward was founded in 2004 by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. It was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 2013. Adult artists of all ages who live with conditions ranging from autism to schizophrenia can join the studio after its application process.
About 50 artists are currently members, with officials hoping to expand membership to 60.
Lindstrom and McCabe learned about the studio after attending a market at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St., where their son, Dan McCabe, a renowned local artist, was a vendor.
They quickly signed up to be volunteers, and during these unprecedented times, they now visit clients throughout the South Side about once a week.
They always adhere to safety guidelines. Sometimes, they pick up paintings that are left outside the front doors of homes. And the couple makes sure to stay 6 feet away from clients, or talk to them from across the street.
It is different from the usual meet-ups at the studio, but McCabe will take it.
“It’s always good to see the artists,” McCabe said. “I can’t wait ’til it opens up again. I’m sure that the clients are sad because it really is a source of joy for everyone.”
McCabe decided to volunteer after a career as a Chicago Public Schools special-education teacher. She enjoys art and dabbles in drawing now and then, but her concern for people with special needs was her main motivation.
She wanted to keep helping them as adults.
“I knew that it is essential for people who graduate from special-ed to have a place to be, a place where they can feel dignity and worth and respect and joy—and they certainly do [at Project Onward],” she said. “It’s so important to us to keep Project Onward going because they provide a place where the artists can thrive. They’re talented in many, many different ways, but they really thrive. I can’t imagine what or where they would be without Project Onward.”
McCabe and Lindstrom have gone so far as to allow artists to stay at their home—and then move them into their own living space when the time was right.
Lindstrom has also helped manage Project Onward’s website and other internet needs, and his favorite memory is chaperoning a trip to Springfield, where artists’ work was displayed in the state Capitol. He was amazed by some of the artists’ brilliant minds, with some of them correcting tour guides about historical facts and one artist recalling what amenities, such as gas stations, were available at every mile marker.
He said Project Onward “allows them to do just wonderful things.”
“They all have a real high amount of talent in the artistic area,” he said. “There’s really no other outlet for that.”
One client, Bill, has been a part of Project Onward since 2014.
He said McCabe and Lindstrom allowed him to stay in their home two years ago after he suffered a long list of health setbacks, including a stroke.
It’s something he will never forget.
“I owe them a debt of gratitude,” he said, “that I won’t be able to repay.”
Bill’s stroke caused him to lose the use of his right hand—his dominant hand—so he taught himself how to paint with his left hand.
“Everybody says I’m back to my old self,” Bill said. “It hasn’t been easy.”
Most of his work has a nature theme, and he also enjoys sculpting.
He said he feels lucky to be able to participate in Zoom calls with other clients every week, and he speaks with some of them every day.
He said Project Onward “welcomed me right in.”
“Everybody’s just so friendly with everyone. Everyone seems to like everyone,” he said. “There’s no fighting. Everybody gets along. It’s just a great community. Everybody is worried about everyone and cares about each other. It’s really sweet.”
Project Onward Executive Director Nancy Gomez said the organization has found a way to survive during the pandemic. Galleries and other events can’t be held, so Project Onward turned to online sales, which has attracted customers from around the world. The organization, she said, will continue to focus on using the internet to its benefit.
During the week, Gomez said, Project Onward supporters stay busy making sure artists have everything they need so they can complete their work and then it can be photographed and posted online.
She is grateful that volunteers like McCabe and Lindstrom are always ready to help.
“They pretty much take it on their own to do what needs to be done with artists,” Gomez said. “They don’t ask. They don’t say. They just go ahead and do it.”
Sales are down about 30 percent during the pandemic, she said—but she considers that a win because she anticipated much higher losses. Grants and other donations from late 2019 have helped.
Meanwhile, clients look forward to seeing each other in person soon. As the rollout for the COVID-19 vaccination grows, so does Bill’s anticipation for seeing his friends again.
“Oh, man, we’re excited,” he said. “We’re almost ready to count down until we get our shots.
“And then we’re gonna have a big party.”
For more information, visit projectonward.org.