The Wonderful World of Artist and Social Entrepreneur Jeffrey Owen Hanson
Jeffrey Owen Hanson is one of those unexpected and inspirational success stories I run into from time to time. This young artist and social entrepreneur has found his niche as a pop art painter in spite of or perhaps because of his low vision and he’s using the sell of his much coveted work to support charitable causes. The following profile I did on hin for an upcoming issue of Omaha Fashion Week explores how he came to discover his artistic gift and to make it the vehicle for philanthropy and details how he’s come to hand-paint dresses showcased at Omaha Fashion Week.
The Wonderful World of Artist and Social Entrepreneur Jeffrey Owen Hanson
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in Omaha Fashion Magazine
The unexpected artist
Self-taught artist Jeffrey Owen Hanson likes saying “I see through Swiss cheese” to explain the visual impairment an optic nerve tumor left him and the unique way it gives him of apprehending the world. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments destroyed the tumor and curbed any further vision loss. The tumor, along with some learning disabilities, are the result of a genetic disorder he’s lived with since birth called Neurofibromatosis.
None of it’s impeded his remarkable ascent as an artist and social entrepreneur. His highly collectible abstract renderings, including hand-painted dresses, are sought after by celebrities and raise major monies for charitable causes close to his heart. At 19 he’s on pace to reach his goal of raising $1 million in charitable proceeds by age 20.
He’s even grateful for his limited visual perception because it’s led him to use color and texture in original ways that make his vibrant, tactile art singularly his own. Indeed, before his vision got really bad he’d never shown the slightest inclination for art.
“I painted on rocks and I did dot art and that type of thing” as a child, he says. “He did the kinds of crafts and arts things that kids always do but really his art wasn’t anything special,” his mother Julie Hanson confirmed. At her suggestion he began painting notecards for something he and his friends could do when he had visitors over while recovering from treatments, What began as a routine diversion soon evolved into a serious artistic and philanthropic outlet. His early watercolors on notecards were sold from a lemonade stand next to his mom’s homebred goodies in the driveway of the family’s suburban home. Within a few years he’d gravitated to acrylics on canvas sold in galleries and auctions, the works commanding five figure prices apiece. Commissions for his work now flood in every week from around the nation, even around the world.
It’s why his parents have come to call their only child “the accidental artist.”
The fact he’s turned an impairment into a gift and made his art a platform for helping others is why his work and story have touched people from all walks of life and well beyond his Overland Park, Kansas home. The Hanson magic has even reached Omaha, where his first line of hand-painted dresses debuted during the grand finale of last August’s Omaha Fashion Week. He’ll have a new line for the OFW Spring show and another in the August showcase.
The standing ovation he received in Omaha for artwork adorning dresses designed by Caine Westergard added to his growing recognition. He’s been named Young Entrepreneur of the Year, he’s been profiled in the Huffington Post, he’s met everyone from Warren Buffett to Elton John. He’s the subject of a YouTube video and a new book authored by his father, Dr. Hal Hanson, entitled “Lessons from Clod.” Clod is the name Jeffrey gave his tumor. Among the lessons he learned from that old nemesis he eventually embraced as a friend is that it’s better to focus on what you can do than on what you can’t do.
Seven years since clod’s disappearance he’s sold hundreds of paintings, enjoyed solo exhibitions, and seen his work purchased by the rich and famous at live charity auctions.
None of this was supposed to have happened.
Seeing past blindness
His father, an emergency room physician at Ransom Memorial Hospital in Ottawa, Kansas, simply calls what’s transpired “amazing,” adding, “We call Jeff the accident artist because no one was intending art being anything more than a childhood hobby. What started out as kid art just sort of evolved. He’s a person that’s totally naive to art, totally untrained, didn’t go to art school, and yet he’s become an in-demand artist with a whole career in front of him.”
Julie Hanson says right from the start of Jeff painting the notecards he showed an aptitude the other kids didn’t. “Jeff’s notecards were fabulous and this consistently kept happening.”
The mystery of how he could go from no apparent artistic ability and without any formal training to exceptional ability and the admiration of professionals may never be fully answered though the family has some theories. Much of his approach to art seems intuitive rather than drawn from any obvious influence, though his impressionistic landscapes are often inspired by places he’s visited.
“There’s no talent in our family for art to start with,” Jeff says by way of eliminating the possibility of some inherited art gene from his immediate lineage.
Where does he think his talent comes from then? “I don’t know,” he says. “I just think I have a good eye for color.” And texture. “Almost all of my paintings have really thick modeling paste spread all over it to give it texture.” He often incorporates wire, rope and other materials into his work, even making woven canvases, to add layers of depth and form. Always though his work exudes the most iridescent tones. “The colors I like to use are bright colors, like lime green, pink, purple. Bright happy colors.” The buoyant colors are a direct reflection of his joyful personality.
Could his visual impairment somehow give him a heightened appreciation for color as a way of compensating for other deficits? “Maybe, I don’t know, possibly,” he says. “Well. I mean I don’t know what I cant see. I see through Swiss cheese. My vision has holes.”
In preparing the book about their son and his unexpected journey in art his parents pressed Jeff about his methodology and discovered things that shed light on how and why he creates what he does.
“We started talking to Jeff about, ‘Well, how did you decide to paint that? Why did you put those two colors together?’ We asked him, ‘What are your rules here?” And we came up with a dozen things that he does that aren’t even at a conscious level for him,” says Hal Hanson. “He doesn’t sit and think about it, but when we tried to pin him down he would say things like, ‘Well, I have low vision so I don’t like to put two light colors next to each other. I have to put a dark color next to a light color because it’s high contrast and I can see the border. And I don’t like things that are flat. I like things that are chunky because I can see the texture when the light catches it.’ So he likes things that are really high contrast, high texture and with big, bold loud colors.
“He doesn’t like any piece of art that has a million little things going on all over it.
It’s gotta have big expanses of calm with nothing going on because it’s hard for him to see a million little things. His eye doesn’t know where to go. So it turns out a lot of what he does is guided by his low vision. Where we once thought his art is popular despite of his low vision, it’s popular because of his low vision. His vision is peculiar enough or impaired enough that it kind of forces him into a certain style. It has sort of guided him in a direction of, ‘Well, here’s what works for me,’”
Then there’s the possibility other guidance is at work, too,
“Don’t you think this is a gift from God?” Julie asks Jeff at one point during the interview. “Yeah,” he answers matter-of-factly.
How else to explain Jeff creating paintings that captivate so many?
Art as career and mission
It took a long time for his mother and father to realize his paintings appealed to far more than just their parental pride. When others began responding to his art they at first thought people were simply being kind or sympathetic to his overcoming challenges to raise funds for NF research. But as his art kept getting more and more attention and interest, they realized something bigger was at work.
“We saw this going on but none of the three of us ever intended this to go anywhere,” says Hal. “For the longest time I thought what they really wanted was a piece of the story. That they’d heard about this kid who had low vision who was painting and giving the paintings to charity auctions. That they weren’t really interested in the art, they just wanted a piece of the story.
“I didn’t consider the possibility that people liked his art for its own sake until we found out people were buying it and they didn’t even know the story, they didn’t know he had low vision and gave the money to charity. That was sort of a revelation to us that, ‘Oh my God, people actually like the art.’ His fans, his clients kept telling us, ‘This isn’t just kid art.’ What we thought was something you would put on your refrigerator with a magnet turned into things selling at an auction for $10,000 and $15,000.”
Artist Rachel Mindrup of Omaha responds to both Jeff’s story and his art. She’s made him a subject in a series of portraits she’s painting of people with Neurofibromatosis who, she says, “are changing the world.” She says he’s a deserving subject for the series she calls The Many Faces of NF “because he’s done so much for NF and for the Children’s Tumor Foundation.”
Like many others, she finds Hanson to be an inspiration.
“Not only has he overcome many limitations he’s going way beyond expectations,” Mindrup says. “It’s cool when an idea like his art philanthropy takes on a life of its own and goodness begets goodness. If you have a good heart and you’re doing things to help other people that seems to grow exponentially.”
As she’s gotten to know Jeff she’s come to admire his “strong work ethic,” adding,
“He’s a working, living artist. He gets up and works every day. He does what any artist should be doing. I find him to be really inspiring, I really do. Here’s a kid who had this disability and instead of woe-is-me he’s doing something positive.”
Even if he didn’t have a heart-tugging story, she says, his art’s good enough to stand on its own.
“His artwork is a treasure in and of itself regardless of his genetic code. Who cares if he has NF or not? It’s like the paintings speak for themselves. They’ve got vivid colors and juicy brush strokes, they’re tactile, they’ve visually pleasing. Anybody who looks at the paintings, regardless if they know Jeff’s story or not, will find them engaging and interesting and will react to them, enjoy them. Without even knowing his biography, they work, they’re wonderful.”
Interior designer Emily Dugger of Omaha treasures the two Hanson paintings hanging in her home, including a custom piece she and her husband commissioned him to make using colors they selected. “We love them both,” she says of his works. “He’s very talented and he’s just extremely sweet. I’m very drawn to his story and his life and his passion.”
Before the Hansons knew it, the accidental artist selling his wares from a lemonade stand morphed into a full-fledged art enterprise. Jeff’s parents recently worked with a professional to devise a strategic plan for finding ever new revenue streams for Jeff’s art in order to sustain his career and his philanthropy.
“It was never intended to be a career at all, it kept snowballing to the point that we realized one day, ‘I guess we have an art business,’ and here we are,” says Hal Hanson.
“The whole world is moving so fast that if you want to continue to have a career in art and be successful you’d better be entrepreneurial and philanthropic,” Julie Hanson explains. “Theres all kinds of things we keep simmering in the business. We’re trying to let this be his career and be very successful at it while also giving to the world.”
Hanson’s new frontier: Hand-painted dresses
Fashion art wasn’t something the Hansons conceived Jeff doing until a consultant identified it as a viable option.
“Fashion certainly was in that plan,” says Julie. “There was no intent of doing it quite so soon, however Omaha Fashion Week caught wind of Jeff and producer Brook Hudson said, ‘What if he would try hand painting dresses?’ And we talked with them about it. because that was exactly what we wanted to do. Jeff was invited to be in the grand finale. The door of opportunity opened and when it opens, Jeff…” “Run and go do it,” he says to finish his mother’s thought.
The next order of business was finding a designer whose dresses he could hand paint. It just so happened that Jeff’s cousin Heather has a friend at Iowa State University studying apparel design, Caine Westergard. Working on a tight schedule mere weeks from the OFW show’s start, Westergard and the Hansons collaborated on three dresses.
“I went ahead and started sketching and used some patterns I had,” says Westergard. “They sent me some paintings they thought would be interesting on some garments and let me have free reign of all the designing aspects of taking which paintings I liked and completely designing the dresses as to what I would think would complement their design. Then I mailed my dresses to the Hansons and they went ahead and painted them.”
“She came up w three blank slates, three blank canvasses if you will for Jeff to apply three different hand-painted styles on these dresses,” says Julie Hanson. “And there’s no secret, we have to help Jeff with that kind of thing a lot. Imagine being given one hand-made original dress and fresh paint is going to go onto it, and guess what, you can’t mess it up, and Jeff’s visually impaired, so we help Jeff with that a lot.”
Westergard appreciates how “extremely textured” Jeff’s work is. “Until you actually see it in person you don’t realize how many different levels and pieces there are
and what is actually beneath the paint and built up. They truly are works of art.”
Inspired by some his impressionistic landscapes, she created three dresses. For “The Grasse”s she imagined “standing out in an open field or prairie” and being caressed by the wind and the colors of the grass. “I really wanted that dress to be long and flowy. I wanted it to have a kind of wave as it walked down the runway with high-low skirt.”
“For “The Poppy” dress I cued off its vibrant color to create a more elegant feel. I wanted to make more of a ball gown of that dress. For “The Water Reservation” or “On the Water Rez” there’s so many different blocks and colors. It’s very bright and flowy. I just chose a very simple black satin with a peek-a-boo skirt. When you look at the garment you can see a little bit of the painting but not until the model walks and the peek-a-boo skirt opens can you actually see the painting on the skirt.”
She couldn’t be sure how Jeff’s art would work with her dresses until the hand-painting was complete.
“The first time I saw the dresses totally finished with my work and their work was the day of the fashion show. It was a little nerve wracking. I had complete faith in them but hand-painting a dress you only have one shot at it. It wasn’t like we had time for me to design another dress or for them to re-hand paint it. But they really turned out to be three really unique pieces that I’m definitely proud of and I know they’re really excited about.”
The audience roared its approval, too. “Seeing that our work was really impacting people was really neat.”
Refilling the bank of dreams
Hal Hanson never anticipated it would come to this. His son walking down the runway hand-in-hand with a promising young designer, surrounded by gorgeous models wearing hand-painted Hanson originals, lapping up the adoring cheers and applause of onlookers.
“I’m speechless,” Hanson says. “As a father, your kid is born and you have this dream bank. You look at your baby for the first time and you think, ‘OK, you’re going to be the quarterback of the football team’ or whatever and then events start occurring that start chipping away at your dreams. And you realize, ‘I guess we’re not going to do that,’ and before you know it he can’t drive a bicycle or roller-skate or see stars in the sky and you keep making withdrawals from your dream bank to the point you don’t’ have any more dreams.
“And that’s where I got pretty rock bottom. I was like, ‘I don’t see anything he can do between his learning problems and his vision problems.’ And then for him to start making and selling art, are you kidding me? Till the day you’re on this runway and people are liking these dresses. It’s just miraculous. My dream bank is bulging with deposits now. It was depleted five years ago, so it’s a huge turnaround.
“It’s turned into something amazing.”
Keep up with Jeff’s burgeoning career at http://jeffreyowenhanson.com.
- Low Vision Resource Center helps blind and visually impaired residents (mysanantonio.com)
- Artist Adriana Groza Launches Debut Paintings Collection 2013 (fineartamerica.com)
- A Colorful Life: Claire Desjardins (artsyforager.com)
- How One Social Entrepreneur Is Tackling Poverty in Cambodia (fuzeus.wordpress.com)