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


Sheryl Booker is not your typical potter. Although she can make dishes and light a fire, she is known for her expressionist work in the form of a hand inspired by mythology.

“There can be a lot of wisdom in that image,” she says, with a mask rendered in bright primary colors of Medusa-like hair.

The 38-year-old is an artist with Project Onward, a non-profit organization founded in 2004 to help artists with developmental disabilities and mental illness. Booker experiences PTSD.

She is the only ceramist among 56 artists working in the 6,000 square foot studio within the Bridgeport Art Center.

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

Sheryl Booker talks about her work inspired by African mythology.  The 38-year-old is an artist at Project Onward, a non-profit studio for artists with disabilities located at the Bridgeport Art Center at 1200 W. 35th St. This non-profit organization is opening a new pottery studio at the art center.

Project Onward artist Cheryl Booker discusses her work inspired by African mythology.

Anthony Vasquez/The Sun Times

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

The first installment was made in October to open a 1,000-square-foot pottery studio on the floor above the main studio.

The kiln, an oven-like chamber used to harden pottery at temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, won’t be there until next year, but it does have a table where Booker has already begun molding new pieces.

“Having a space dedicated to this would make a big difference,” Booker said. “You’ll be able to experiment, create big pieces, and use your imagination.”

Booker has been with the nonprofit since 2018. During that time, she limited herself to her small pieces that could easily be laid out in a corner to dry.

Still, her work, which sells for nearly $1,000, is in jeopardy.

For now, Booker can use the kiln in another studio in the building, but demand is high. She may have to wait a month to fire her one piece.

When Booker joined the studio, she was supposed to dabble in painting, executive director Nancy Gomez said, but ultimately found her too drawn to ceramics. I just noticed.

Gomez said he had to turn down many potters who wanted to join the studio.

Cheryl Booker (left to right), Executive Director Nancy Gomez and Jeanno Juguilon inside the Project Onward Ceramics studio space at 1200 West Bridgeport Art Centre. A pottery workshop in the art center.

Cheryl Booker (left to right), Executive Director of Project Onward, Nancy Gomez, and Gianno Juguilon.

Anthony Vasquez/The Sun Times

“I honestly couldn’t afford to have more,” Gomez said. “Clay is expensive, glaze is expensive. It takes a lot of space. It’s a mess.”

Artists go through a rigorous application process to join the studio. In addition to being handicapped, they must be able to get along with other artists in the studio.

The nonprofit will cover the cost of supplies, but keep 50% of the sales. Gomez said the remaining 50 percent of him isn’t enough for an artist to live on, but enough to make up for what he earns in other ways or receives in disability benefits.

Since opening the studio, Project Onward has been accepting potter applications through its website, Gomez said. No new artists have been hired, but some of the nonprofit’s other artists are using the new studio to delve into the medium.

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

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

Janno Juguilon, Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St.

Janno Juguilon is at the Bridgeport Art Center (1200 W. 35th St.

Anthony Vasquez/The Sun Times

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

Standing in the studio, Juguilon and Booker admire a teapot made by Juguilon. Since the kiln is borrowed, the temperature cannot be controlled, and the glaze may be uneven.

As a result, the juguilon pot has a gourd-like knobby texture.

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

“I love it,” said Booker. “You have a personality.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Reporting to Americaa non-profit journalism program aimed at enhancing the coverage of the paper in communities in the South and West.

Janno Juguillon holds some ceramics in the Project Onward studio at the Bridgeport Art Center at 1200 W. 35th St.

Primarily a painter, Janno Juguilon works at the Bridgeport Art Center (1200 W. 35th St.

Anthony Vasquez/The Sun Times


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Written by Natalia Chi

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