‘Accidental artist’ finds inspiration in face of adversity | AspenTimes.com

‘Accidental artist’ finds inspiration in face of adversity

With the 16th annual Challenge Aspen gala and golf classic in the books, the inspirational messages from the nonprofit’s guests this past week carry on long after the fundraising is finished.

Kansas City-based artist Jeff Hanson is one of them. Two of his acrylic paintings sold during the live auction Sunday commanding $38,000.

It was Hanson’s 258th time on stage raising money for charities. The 25-year-old has raised more than $5 million for over 200 nonprofits, and his goal is to raise $10 million by the time he turns 30.

The “accidental artist” stumbled into painting when he was 12 and was undergoing chemotherapy. His parents, Hal and Julie, knew he needed a distraction so he began painting watercolor notecards.

Within three years, Hanson started a business with a philanthropy-first model and transitioned into acrylic on canvas, with bold colors and heavily sculptured textures, which has become his signature style.

He calls it a “sight for sore eyes” because he is visually impaired. He has been that way since childhood when he developed neurofibromatosis type 1 and an optic chiasm brain tumor, playfully named CLOD by he and his parents.

Hanson described his eyesight like Swiss cheese — being able to see through some openings but not all of them. The closer he gets the more he can see.

He explained onstage to the roomful of Challenge Aspen supporters in the Viceroy before his work was auctioned off that one must look at people’s abilities, not disabilities.

“Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do,” he said Friday from his home in Kansas City.

That kind of attitude is exactly what Jeff Hauser, executive director of Challenge Aspen, was hoping to capture in the room that evening.

The Snowmass Village-based nonprofit’s mission is to impact lives through year-round adaptive experiences for individuals faced with cognitive and physical disabilities.

“(Jeff) was part of our theme of celebrating people’s abilities, not their disabilities and looking through the disability and find the person,” Hauser said.

Hanson lives and breathes by his slogan, “Don’t let your CLOD define you!”

So instead of defining himself as the kid who lost his vision to a brain tumor, Hanson has been defined by art, philanthropy and entrepreneurship.

And it all began on a sidewalk in front of his house when he established his curbside business, Jeff’s Bistro, selling baked goods, drinks and notecards.

Proceeds benefited the Children’s Tumor Foundation to fund optic tumor research.

At the time, his parents didn’t put too much thought into their son’s artwork, but it obviously became clear later that he had a natural gift.

“It was just a distraction” to the chemotherapy, Hal said. “It was nothing, and we thought it was done and then when he turned 19 and he had donated $1 million to charities it hit me on the head.”

Now it’s a family business. Hal, a former emergency room physician, and Julie, a stay-at-home mom who worked in fashion merchandising and marketing, now work for Jeff and his company, Jeffrey Owen Hanson LLC.

His private works command anywhere between $2,900 and $14,000, and are mostly inspired by travel.

“We wanted to show Jeff the world before he went blind,” Hal said.

The Hanson family photographs places they travel, magnify the image on a computer and Jeff paints his interpretation.

Some of his paintings now hang in the homes of art collectors across the globe, including Sir Elton John, Warren E. Buffett and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The Hanson family also does motivational speaking around the country, sharing their journey through adversity.

“We didn’t know what journey we were on at the beginning,” Hal said. “The journey is fun because it inspires others.”

In 2013, Hal published a book called “Lessons from Clod” that takes the reader through the Hansons’ lives as parents before the tumor, and how they coped with it.

It’s a story of how a sick boy was transformed into an artist and how he found his identity.

Hauser said participants like Hanson and Sunday night’s gala keynote speaker, Kechi Okwuchi, who is a plane crash survivor and a former finalist on “America’s Got Talent,” embody the mission of Challenge Aspen.

“We wanted to celebrate the spirit of these participants who face adversity but come out on the other side still adventurous and positive,” he said.