Portraitists with Disabilities Celebrate the History of Black Art

David A. Holt on his artistry and work with Project Onward, a studio and gallery for artists with disabilities.

Elena Sucharetza

Project Onward, in the Bridgeport neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, is not your typical gallery. The nonprofit works exclusively with professional artists who have mental and developmental disabilities, providing studio and exhibition space. For Black History Month, Project Onward is hosting a special exhibit, Honoring Legendary African-American Artists: Distinct Portraits by disAbled Artists, featuring portraits of famous Black artists, such as JeanMichel Basquiat and Carrie Mae Weems, in a variety of mediums.

Artist David A. Holt, born in 1984, makes paintings and drawings on canvas and cardboard. He has worked with Project Onward since 2006, and many of his recent pieces are obituaries,” or memorial portraits,” drawn after important people’s deaths. Holt is also an autism advocate who competes in the Special Olympics. He spoke with In These Times about his work.

Your first obituary drawing was a portrait of your grandmother. Tell us more.

I was heartbroken. My mom and my father are all passed on. And it was a very heartfelt loss in my body, it was very rough. 

How does your artistic process work now?

I pick up a Sun-Times newspaper, I look up the obituary page. This year I did Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries, the group. I also did Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Tom Petty and David Bowie. I just want to respect them, to get the word out and to make the fans feel happy.

What personal significance does this exhibit have for you as a Black artist? 

Basically it’s like a dream come true. I just want to represent people

How has your experience been with Project Onward? 

I create art for a purpose. Because I just want to respect and keep this program going. And so we can roll together as a team and as a family. If there were no Project Onward, I’d be lost and devastated. Art makes me feel happy inside and focused inside me, you know. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing and just stay positive. 

Honoring Legendary African-American Artists: Distinct Portraits by disAbled Artists, Bridgeport Art Center, through March 30.

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Elena Sucharetza is a spring 2018 In These Times editorial intern.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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