Family Measures Generosity in Creativity
One million … What does one million mean? It seems like a large number, perhaps associated with burgeoning wealth. However, it is wealth of a different kind that inspires artist Jeff Hanson.
In mid-May, the Make-A-Wish North Texas Gala proved to be a very positive tipping point. The goal of $1 million was reached at the event. Since the age of 12, Jeff has been donating his paintings to charitable live auctions. At the age of 19, he and his mother talked in the family kitchen about raising $1 million for charity before his 20th birthday. Four months before that birthday, Jeff and his parents Julie and Dr. Hal Hanson were able to witness the threshold reached and surpassed.
To reach his milestone, Jeff donated an original painting titled Siena Breeze, a second painting that was a commission of choice and a hand-painted custom-made evening gown. The three items were auctioned for $46,000, which was $2,000 more than Jeff needed to reach his $1 million goal. Proceeds went to Make-A-Wish North Texas. Since 2007, Jeff has donated a total of 125 works to charities nationwide. The thrill came when that goal was exceeded at a Make-A-Wish event and it meant a little more because at 12, he was a Make-A-Wish recipient. His wish was to meet singer Sir Elton John.
“We ended up turning the tables on Elton John and giving him $1,000 for his children’s AIDS foundation. It was the grand opening of the Sprint Center,” says Julie. “He couldn’t understand how generous Jeff was when it was his Make-A-Wish event. We ended up in Dubai as his guests.” On top of the trip, Jeff presented John with a painting he titled View from the 22nd Row. John also asked Jeff to paint 12 works for an Elton John AIDS Foundation sponsored Baphumelele Children’s Orphanage in South Africa. “They arrived on Christmas Day and that is the gift that has meant the most,” he says. Julie says that became the family gift that year as it was costly to send the paintings to Africa. “But what a life-changing moment for me too,” she says. Hal says the orphanage workers and children loved the paintings. “We were told we helped give them back a little of their childhood.”
While Jeff has caring parents, he attributes his lessons and attitude of giving to John. “He told me that if you give to the world, the world will give back,” he says. “It seemed like good wisdom.” Today, business magnate and philanthropist Warren Buffett has a Jeffrey Owen Hanson painting hanging in his home.
Initially, the artwork was something to do as Jeff dealt with an almost non-existent immune system due to treatments for his optic tumor. Jeff lives with a genetic disorder called Neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder where nerve tissue grows tumors that may be benign, but may also cause serious damage by compressing nerves and other tissues as is Jeff’s case. As a pastime during chemotherapy, young Jeff painted watercolor note cards and sold them at his driveway bake sale, “Jeff’s Bistro,” to raise money for the Children’s Tumor Foundation and for his own needs, when he was healthy enough. “People started telling me how much they liked my art and said I should put it on canvas,” Jeff says. The watercolors were tucked away and bright acrylics replaced the washed out colors.
Jeff has no professional training. “I honestly didn’t know I had the talent.” Hal says no one in the family thought about a family artist business, but their model has worked in that sort of backward and accidental way. “Well, think about it this way. Most people would start a business where the art would be sold for a profit. It wouldn’t be the reverse where a bulk of the art was heading out of the door for charities,” Julie says. Most corporate giving comes after profit, Hal says. “The three of us could never have conceived that philanthropy came first.”
In the beginning, Julie purchased the less expensive acrylics for Jeff. Now he uses high-end art supplies. “We have had to walk this journey as a family,” she says. “I learned what he needed as far as supplies. I watched how he shaped his passion for color. I wanted to carry the burden for him, like any mother, but I watched this artist blossom.”
Hal, who is an emergency room physician, wrote a book titled Lessons from CLOD to help define Jeff’s medical condition and the turbulent emotions he and Julie felt as their son stared down his health problems. “We all have our CLODS in life. Jeff proved how he would make his choices and decided not to let the optic tumor define him. I struggled as I watched my dreams for my son drift away. I wanted him to be the CEO of Apple, but the dreams have changed and the deposits are bulging. Who would have thought that within seven years of diagnosis and treatment, that art would lead us to this point?”
Now, the family has Jeff’s art business in hand. His art is made of layers of paint, impressionistic and stylistic of Jeff’s memories of places in Europe or from a cruise through the Caribbean, as examples. He often spends only a couple of hours a day, adding layers and colors of paint. “He may work on 20 paintings at one time. The paintings progress to meet the demand,” Julie says, “and the demand for his work is high.” Originally Julie and Hal thought the attraction to Jeff’s work was more about their son’s story. “People like his art and many have never heard his story,” Hal says. The stack of commissions is substantial, Julie says. And every year, they plan to give one organization “one big gift.” Jeff painted 30 paintings for Children’s Mercy Hospital’s pediatric oncology and three paintings for the board room. Sometimes the paintings include woven canvas on top of the canvas.
“Jeff is still one person who is exploring what the future might hold for him,” Julie says. “There’s always exploring that needs to be done.” Now, the family is not looking at numbers anymore, Hal says. “It was a fun goal to dream big and see that goal reached. We have learned our lessons, especially from CLOD. This is the story of one kid who still had dreams despite challenging medical issues.”
Philanthropy will always be a part of the Hanson household, even as the accolades settle. He has been recognized as a “Hero Among Us” by People Magazine. The Huffington Post readers voted Jeff the “Top Kid Making a Difference in 2011.” He’s also received the National Prudential Spirit of Community Award. “Sure things will quiet down. However, I rather like the idea that art transforms faces and my works will continue that. I want to be defined by the smiles on the faces that see my art,” Jeff says.•