Saturday, April 20, 2013

Jennifer Howell, The Art of Elysium

Interview: Jennifer Howell


On my recent trip to Los Angeles, I met Jennifer Howell.  Jen is a wonderful, down to earth, and  dynamic person. Jen is also a renowned philanthropist and amazing human being. She is the founder of an interesting project. The Art of Elysium, a non-profit organization founded in 1997,  encourages working actors, artists and musicians to voluntarily dedicate their time and talent to children who are battling serious medical conditions. They provide artistic workshops in the following disciplines: acting, art, comedy, fashion, music, radio, songwriting and creative writing.

What propelled you to create the charitable organization, The Art of Elysium?

I went to film school at Emerson College and moved to Los Angeles to write and direct.  Shortly after moving to LA, a friend of mine, from my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, relapsed with leukemia.  He had been diagnosed our senior year of high school, but had found a matching donor for a bone marrow transplant and he had gone into what we believed was a full remission.  He was dating my best friend and she called me in December of 1996 and asked me to come home to see Stephen and be with her. That trip changed everything for me.  In one conversation with Stephen and Tara, my life took a very different path than I had ever intended.  I came back to Los Angeles and that conversation played over and over in my head and Stephen’s simple statement of, “I wish someone would do something for the kids who are in the hospital without friends or family visiting them.”  By August of 1997, I just asked a group of my friends that I had gone to art school with to get together and figure out a way that we could share our artistic talents with these children.  That was the beginning and what was to come from that first meeting, first hospital visit. This first interaction with an artist and a child in need is what paved the path for the Art of Elysium.

What is the overall mission of  the Art of Elysium and the meaning behind the name?

That seems like the most straightforward question that you could ask but it is one of the hardest things to answer.  In a simple sentence, the Art of Elysium bridges the artistic community together with hospitalized children to provide a creative outlet for them to express their experiences and serves as a form of distractive therapy.  However, that is the very beginning of this mission.  I was fortunate enough to start taking artists into the hospitals from August 1997-December of 1997 before starting the Art of Elysium.  I got to witness not only the impact the art workshops had on the patients and their families, but the impact it had on the artists.  We would leave the hospital and the artist would be inspired to write, paint, and perform because of their experience.  I believe the greater mission of the Art of Elysium goes something like this:  these amazing children are our spiritual warriors and teachers; they are going through things that most of us will never experience.  Our gift is getting to be of service to these children while they are facing these grave circumstances and through our gift of art, music, writing, dance, fashion design, etc we can give them a voice to express themselves during this time.  Hopefully, this gift of expression will go with them even after they are discharged from the hospital.  It is my belief that artists are forever changed through these experiences, and if we are creating an artistic community that creates from a place of service then we can change the world at large because artists are the true reflection of our society.  We try to do all of our fundraisers through an artistic endeavor and try to support the artists that volunteer and dedicate their hearts and souls to working with our children.  They are the role models that I would love for people to look up to and be inspired by.  Although we have a standard mission statement, it is something that I think about all the time because there is no way to describe the full circle of the Art of Elysium to people unless they have gone in and experienced what we do first hand.  The charity is much more a movement of artists trying to create ELYSIUM by being of service.

How do you find interested celebrities and artists for your work?

We don’t look for celebrities to be involved with the charity.  The celebrities that volunteer with us have all come from word of mouth and I do not look at them as celebrities, but as artists just like all of our other artist volunteers.  The only thing that our “celebrities” can do that our other artist volunteers cannot is bring attention to our cause and help raise money through various endorsements, etc.  We are so greatly appreciative for all of their support and what they do. However, the charity is in no way a “celebrity charity,” and I feel that because we have so many artists who are successful and in the media that people do not realize that our mission is to bring artists at all levels into hospitals to share their talent and artistic expression with children.   

Can you share a bit about your friend who was the catalyst for the project and his legacy?

Stephen Lane Hatten was one of the greatest guys that anyone could ever know.  After relapsing with leukemia, he did not think about himself, but thought about the children that he saw in the hospitals while he was in for his treatments.  His selflessness was the call to action that changed my life.  He is with us every single day, in every workshop, every gallery exhibit, and every artistic endeavor and by our side for every challenge that we face.  His family is still in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and I pray that the Art of Elysium forever honors Stephen and the set of principles that his family gave him to live by.  You never realize who the most important people in your life really are.  Tara Williamson (Stephen’s girlfriend/my best friend from childhood) has been my rock my entire life and I would not be who I am today without her and always knew that she would help shape my identity.  I did not know that when she called me to come home and be with her and visit Stephen that Stephen Hatten would become the single most important person in my life.  He is the one who has shaped my destiny and the future of the Art of Elysium and every artist that gets to participate in an art workshop and every child who is given the gift of expression.

How do you keep the artistic and monetary momentum alive?

The artistic momentum is really easy….we are an artist charity first and foremost and each artist that comes in has their own creative ideas and art projects.  They come in and discuss how they can help raise money through art exhibits, music showcases, film projects and ideas that have probably never even been thought of by anyone.  I feel creatively inspired every day and fulfilled with the knowing that these artists are putting work into the world for audiences to see that come from a fundamental belief that philanthropy comes first and giving is giving of yourself.  The overall monetary model is an on-going work in process.  We are currently trying to look at the sustainability of the Art of Elysium and make certain that the charity and our mission will be around from here to eternity.  We are trying to begin building an endowment fund and it is a new endeavor.  I am actually meeting with someone this week to start looking at a long term strategy.

What are the grassroots elements of the project and how do you help the real life beneficiaries of  the Art of Elysium in hospitals?

The grassroots elements with the Art of Elysium happen after every workshop.  An artist goes in with their art project and shares it with one patient or a group of patients.  They leave the hospital and let’s say they go to the recording studio to meet their band and they tell them about the experience.  The next thing that happens is our phones start ringing at the Aof E offices with new artists wanting to come in for volunteer orientations and when they can get into the hospital for a workshop.  That is truly how this organization has grown.  Saint Francis said, “It is in giving that we receive.”  I think that our volunteers understand this better than most and when they talk about their experiences people see something that inspires them to be of service too.

Where do you see the mission for the Art of Elysium in ten years?

I would love to have Elysium Centers where our artists could have recording studios, art studios, design studios, sound stages, etc for their use to create their art.  The way the center would work is that you could have access to it based on volunteer hours in the hospital with our patients.  When children are discharged from the hospital, they could also come to the space and continue the art workshops they started while in the hospital.  I see it as creating an entire community of artists that give by directly sharing their own gift of creation with a child in need.  I think that the possibilities are limitless when you have artists willing to reach inside and find ways to share their creativity.  I just would like to know that the mission is ever-changing, ever-growing, and ever-creating in a way that can help heal our children, our artists and our world.

As  the Art of Elysium evolves, do you see it going nationwide and to other countries?

I would love to see the Art of Elysium in any city, any country, anywhere where there is a child in a hospital and an artist in their community that is willing to share their gift of art.

Can you share some current projects and artistic ideas that inspire you?

The Art of Elysium’s ELYSIUM INDUSTRY program has just finished our first feature film called FOREVER.  The director is Tatia Pilieva and she has been a long time volunteer and is the first recipient of our TAHNEE AWARD.  This film is the heart of our mission and shows how all of our volunteers come together and create something magical.  Mark Mothersbaugh did the score for the film, Shepard Fairey is currently working on the movie poster and marketing materials and our cast was mainly our volunteers:  Ioan Gruffudd, Shanola Hampton, Rain Phoenix and more.  It is a beautiful film and we are currently getting ready to take it out and share it with the world.  The back end of the film will come into the Art of Elysium and hopefully help us start building our endowment fund.  It is a project that I am super proud of and a model that I think will truly help us become self-sufficient through our artistic endeavors.


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