Sitting cross-legged in front of a canvas on his parents’ basement floor, Jeff Hanson, 19, squeezes a dollop of thick yellow paint from a tube and, using a 1-inch metal spatula, sweeps the bold color horizontally across an emerging landscape.
“This is my view of the sunflowers and hills around Tuscany,” says Hanson, of Overland Park, Kansas. “Usually my paintings take people to great places.”
Like most of his works, this composition is abstract and pops with bright, happy colors—a reflection of how the low-vision artist views the world.
A childhood optic tumor impaired Hanson’s vision so that he sees through what looks like “a filter of Swiss cheese,” says his father, Hal, 61. The perception translates artistically into colorful, textured paintings that appear to explode off the canvas.
The bigger picture, however, is what Hanson does with his artwork. Since age 12, the self-taught artist has donated more than 130 of his paintings to raise money for charitable causes. Last May at a live auction for the Make-A-Wish of North Texas, he surpassed $1 million in charitable giving.
“I’m just a low-vision kid from Kansas trying to change the world,” he says humbly.
Hanson’s talent and philanthropic spirit have endeared him to nonprofit and mission-based organizations ranging from AIDS in Africa to the Kansas State School for the Blind.
“What’s unusual is to have someone make such an early commitment to philanthropy—who sticks with it and grows it,” says John Risner, 53, president of the Children’s Tumor Foundation, which has raised more than $30,000 through Hanson’s artwork.
Hanson began dabbling with art in 2005 at age 12 while undergoing medical treatment for his optic tumor, a byproduct of neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that can damage the nervous system and cause learning disabilities. The tumor, which he dismissively nicknamed “CLOD,” pushed dangerously close to his brain.
“At that point there was not a lot of hope; MRIs showed him going blind,” recalls his mother, Julie, 49.
During chemotherapy and radiation to destroy the tumor, the young patient began painting watercolor note cards to pass the time.
By spring of 2006, with the tumor destroyed and his vision stabilized, Hanson’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. Setting up a stand in his driveway called Jeff’s Bistro, he sold his note cards and his mom’s baked goods, hoping to raise enough money to buy a Natuzzi black leather chair for his bedroom. By the fourth day, he had made $240 when a stranger drove his pickup truck into the Hansons’ driveway and unloaded the coveted $1,300 chair as a gift. Hanson promised to repay him but the stranger declined. “I want you to pay it forward,” he told the youngster.
Hanson did, operating Jeff’s Bistro each Saturday morning throughout the summer, selling 5,000 of his hand-painted note cards and raising $15,000 for the Children’s Tumor Foundation.
In 2007, the youngster began experimenting with acrylic paint when his ophthalmologist, Dr. Trudi Grin, asked him to transfer one of his note card designs to a larger canvas for a Medical Missions Foundation fundraiser in Kansas City. His painting raised $400, and the event earned him several commissions.
When Make-A-Wish arranged for a meeting with singer Elton John that same year, the boy presented the British superstar with $1,000 for his AIDS in Africa work. “It’s fun,” Hanson says of charitable giving. “Elton John told us, ‘If you give to the world, the world will give back.’”
It has. Hanson’s charity work has brought him personal satisfaction and national recognition, and helped him to launch a profitable business.
Seven years after selling his first note card, the young artist earns from $900 to $28,000 for his commissioned work. He is venturing into the world of high fashion and printmaking. His mother serves as his business manager, and Hal, an emergency room physician, is considering working full time for his son as well.
A year ago, having already contributed $750,000 to charity, the son bet his parents he could reach $1 million by this Sept. 30, his 20th birthday.
“They said ‘No,’ but I did,” Hanson says with a grin.