Two transplanted Tennesseans are bringing a powerful art exhibit to Evanston this month at the Open Studio Project’s Gallery 901.

“The Brain Part II” by William Douglas. Credit: Courtesy William Douglas and Open Studio Project

William Douglas, the exhibiting artist, grew up in Knoxville but moved to the Chicago area in the 1990s. Rob Lentz, a Tennessean from Nashville, is the program director at Open Studio Project, bringing us this work and curating its display.

Lentz is also co-founder and former director of Project Onward, an art studio and gallery in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood that supports artists with disabilities. That’s where Lentz met Douglas 10 years ago.

Douglas’ work might be called “outsider art.” The term is defined by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art as “the work of artists who demonstrate little influence from the mainstream art world and who are, instead, motivated by their unique personal visions.”

The exhibitions at the Open Studio Project’s Gallery 901 feature artists whose work embodies healing and recovery. As the curator there, Lentz, felt strongly that Douglas’  journey deserved to be witnessed: how he used art to navigate his struggles with mental illness, then relied on art for his physical and emotional recovery after a major stroke in 2018. 

Artist William Douglas. Credit: Courtesy William Douglas and Open Studio Project

“William Douglas is a natural-born artist,” Lentz said, “and when he had a serious mental health crisis following the deaths of his parents in 2012, his recovery from that trauma was largely due to art therapy. This show is really a document of that journey, which continues to this day.”

Then the recent stroke caused Douglas to lose the use of his dominant right hand. What would have been a devastating blow to any ordinary artist only strengthened Douglas’ resolve to recover. Determined to go back to making art, he taught himself to write and draw with his left hand.

Douglas lives in the Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, not far from the Bridgeport Art Center where Project Onward is housed. The organization takes up much of the fourth floor of a large former industrial building at 1200 W. 35th St.

Harvey Pranian, founder of the annual Young Evanston Artists festival, was a big fan of Project Onward. Pranian, who moved out of town in 2019, curated and hung a large exhibit in 2014 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center featuring artists with disabilities, including artists from Project Onward. Douglas’ artwork was in that show.

“Night and Day” by William Douglas. Credit: Courtesy William Douglas and Open Studio Project

But neither Pranian nor Lentz “discovered” Douglas. Lentz said, “If anyone ‘discovered’ Douglas, it was his art therapist at Thresholds, Kathy Osler. She recognized his talent and encouraged him to seek out Project Onward. When he brought us his work I was blown away!”

The show title, Firsts & Lasts, refers to handwritten text in one of the drawings on display, among a kind of inventory of post-stroke thoughts and memories. It reflects the “before and after” nature of Douglas’ artistic journey, which was rocked by his near-death experience. 

“His work has always stared death in the face, but the stroke sparked deeper introspection and a search for meaning,” Lentz said.

The exhibit runs Feb. 4 to March 5 at Gallery 901, 901 Sherman Ave., just north of Main Street.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Thursday, closed Friday-Sunday. And yes, the artwork in the show is for sale!

Gay Riseborough

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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  1. Lovely write-up about the show and its curator, Rob Lentz. You may be interested to know that his own art was quite precocious – starting at age 3! Glad to see him recognized as co-founder of Project Onward, too. Thank you. Rob’s mom

    1. Mrs.Lentz,
      Rob is a fine artist in his own right! He’s also a mentor and friend and any success I have I owe in part to him! You have raised a kind and giving son! I’d like to thank him for this opportunity and the Roundtable for reporting on it! Evanston is truly a gem!
      Bill Douglas