Born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Jennifer landed in Los Angeles shortly after graduating from Emerson College with a B.A. in Mass Communications and Film. She has since become an inspiration to tens of thousands of children and their families, and set a new precedent for social responsibility within the entertainment community.
An accidental philanthropist, Jennifer had a movie career in mind before fate dealt her a different hand. “There really is no rhyme or reason to it,” she explained. “I wasn’t looking for a change in my life. I was super excited about being in LA and starting a career in the film industry.” But only after a close friend was diagnosed with Leukemia, and experienced first-hand the loneliness of children forced to suffer in a hospital bed alone, did a simple conversation turn into a totally different perspective. “For some reason, that story just redirected my life,” she said.
Soon after, Jennifer began volunteering at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles with a group of friends, most of whom were artists. But after several weeks of regular visits, she found herself in another unexpected position. “They took me in this big board room with a whole bunch of people,” she explained. “They said, ‘We never in a million years thought you would follow through. We love the artists you bring in and so do the children, but if you want to keep doing it, you have to start a non-profit.’” Reflecting on what became a major career change, she joked, “I was 22 at the time. I didn’t even know what a ‘non-profit’ was.”
Nevertheless, she was determined to continue what she had started. And in the fall of 1997, the Art of Elysium was born. What began as a group of friends with a mission to make sure no child goes through treatment alone, became a new way of looking at art and its capacity for social change. “I believe in the power of creativity,” said Howell. “If you can teach a child to see a hospital room as a totally different world, and allow them to create their own reality through the means of creative expression, then you have given them the gift of imagination and the true healing power of art.”I met Jennifer Howell through mutual friends over 10 years ago and we quickly struck up a friendship. We spent hours discussing art and culture and how impactful it is when artists choose to use their gifts to help others. I began volunteering as a musician with The Art of Elysium soon after and saw first hand how healing the power of art can be for those experiencing great hardship. It also elevated my creative and connected me to each person I had the privilege to serve. Through volunteering I learned that even if it’s just for a short while, art has the capacity to transform unfortunate circumstances into joyful inspiration. In celebration of the charity’s 20th anniversary, I sat down with The Art of Elysium’s founder Jennifer Howell to find out how it all began.
RP: What made you want to start The Art of Elysium?
JH : I started The Art of Elysium because a childhood friend was diagnosed with Leukemia our senior year of high school. He had a bone marrow drive and went into remission but relapsed several years later. During his battle with the disease, he never thought of himself but the children he saw in the hospital while he was being treated. He simply asked, “Do not pity me. Will you please do something for the kids who have no one while they are in the hospital?”. That was the call to action and now 20 years later we have been able to take the healing power of art to other areas of need.
RP: What is The Art of Elysium ?
JH: The Art of Elysium is an art based non-profit. We work to build a community of artist who support those in need through sharing their creative projects. We work with musicians, artists, fashion designers and filmmakers to create programs for children in hospitals, special need schools, hospice care facilities and inner-city schools. We also work with the elderly, veterans and the homeless community. Each workshop is unique to the artist leading the program. The scope of work we do is infinite because it is based on the creativity that each artist brings to the organization and the desire in their heart to serve those in need of inspiration.
RP: When you started TAOE 20 years ago did you ever envision it where it is today?
JH: In the beginning, it was just myself and the volunteers that were going in to do the programs. It was divinely guided and grew organically. I think when people genuinely connect to service that it changes them. They are passionate when they tell others about their service and their inner light really shines. That light is inspiring and illuminates the way for others to sign up, volunteer and connect through the act of creation. So in some ways I’m not surprised where it is today as it was guided by artists sharing their light with one another.
Jacques tells us his story through his art and how it all started when he was introduced to The Art of Elysium.
To see video click here
RP: What is your main focus in 2018?
JH: My biggest goal to achieve before January 2019 is to appropriately tell our story and get people to understand all that we do. The blessing and curse of being a creative arts charity is that people are always looking for a very simple explanation to understand the work we do. There is not a simple explanation because a musician who come in to share their gift of music with children at a special needs school is completely different than a sculptor who comes in and creates a sculpting workshop for elders at one of our eldercare facilities. There are so many different ways of engagement at The Art of Elysium that I think people get confused about what we do. In the simplest terms, we give the gift of creation to those in need of inspiration. Finding a way for people to easily understand our mission is my biggest goal at the moment.
RP: What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job? What get’s you through the hard days?
JH: There are so many incredible experiences I’ve had with the children and people that we serve. The shared moments both happy and sad, the inspirational stories, the events, the artists, my incredible staff – all these things have kept me going. But, I’d say ultimately the most rewarding part of my job is knowing that we try our best every day to encourage people to truly connect with one another. To be fully present in creating with another person, to serve another person without ego, to collaborate with others for something bigger. When things get challenging, I remember this is not about me, this is about striving to build a community of artists serving the world through creativity – that is the gift of my job, that is what gets me through.
To find out more about The Art of Elysium, visit www.theartofelysium.org
Rain Phoenix Photo by Jeff Katz