FRANKFORT – When Matt Bianchi was in first grade, he’d get into trouble for drawing in class – until his mother Annette noticed something about her autistic son.
“He was much calmer and paid attention much more if he was allowed to sketch,” Annette said.
Today, Matt, 22, is earning a small income from his art, thanks to Project Onward in Chicago, a nonprofit studio and gallery for 55 adult artists with mental and developmental disabilities, said Rob Lentz, executive director.
“In addition to the nuts and bolts of making art, we provide support and guidance to the artists and outlets for them to exhibit and sell their work,” Lentz said, “with an eye toward professional development and the idea of building careers in art.”
Matt explained it more simply: To the Frankfort resident, Project Onward is a place where artists like himself produce masterpieces. Making art makes him happy, he said, and working with other artists also makes him happy.
“It’s my very own place in the circle of life,” Matt said. “I was born to be an artist. It [Project Onward] is the only place for me to be.”
Matt might not be uttering these words if Annette had not advocated for her son. Soon after his diagnosis – and Matt’s autism was apparent by six months – Annette was seeking out home and school-based early intervention therapy at a time when society had less awareness of autism spectrum disorders.
“I think a lot of parents had a ‘wait and see’ approach. I could not wait tor that to happen,” Annette said. “Matt was turning 2 and then 3 and then 4. You can’t go back to 3 and say, ‘If only we had done aggressive speech and occupational therapy.”
As Matt’s artistic abilities became obvious, Annette found outlets for Matt to develop and showcase them. For instance in 2002, and then again in 2007, Matt was asked to donate sketches for the silent auctions for Autism Speaks fundraisers, Annette said.
Then in 2009, Matt was the sketch artist for the Advancing Future for Adults with Autism national town hall meeting. Matt was paid $100 – his first paycheck as an artist.
But for Matt, the experience was less about the money and more about the acknowledgment.
“This was the first time he had done something better than anyone else,” Annette said, “and the first time he was recognized for an ability that he can be proud of.”
When Annette learned about Project Onward, she knew the nonprofit was the perfect niche for him. Matt was accepted in 2013 and now spends two to three days a week there and has sold about 15 pieces, Annette said. She feels the studio is a real gift to him.
“He can go to work independently; he’s accepted for his skills; he’s got friendships; and he’s grown as a person,” Annette said.
Lentz feels that’s the genius of Project Onward. The hard truth is children with autism grow up to be adults with autism, he said. Not only do many specialized services stop after childhood, these adults often struggle to find meaningful employment.
That’s why professional development is a key component of Project Onward.
“We want to work with people who self-identify as artists, who are already making art and who are committed to the creative process,” Lentz said. “We’re very much into the quality of the artwork, the fact there is a market for it and that people are actually interested in buying it.”
One reason Lentz feels Matt’s work sells is because he creates art with childlike themes – Matt especially likes Disney stories and children’s literature – that also is fresh and unselfconscious, and harkens customers back to more innocent times in their lives.
“He’s very much plugged into childhood and he seems to connect with the stories and the characters. It’s very immediate for him,” Lentz said. “Because he isn’t formally trained, he doesn’t worry about, ‘Am I doing this correctly?’ He just does it. He has an instinctive sense.”
Last fall, hoping to broaden Matt’s artistic opportunities, Annette enrolled Matt in New Lenox Wood Works, a program of Trinity Services in New Lenox.
Although Matt said he isn’t interested in woodworking, he does enjoy assisting the process by sanding or attaching bolts. Anytime a sketch is needed for a project, Matt is happy to oblige and he shows his affection for new friends – including program coordinator Mike McCutcheon – by presenting them with original sketches.
McCutcheon feels the woodworking class benefits Matt in subtler ways. He’s learning to build relationships with some of the other students and he impresses people with his acute sense of detail on many subjects and the ability to repeat facts verbatim.
“He’s just an amazing guy,” McCutcheon said.
For information on Project Onward, visit projectonward.org.