Jennifer K. Howell knows how to turn it out — even in Hawthorne. On a recent Saturday eve, she organized an opening at Soicher-Marin Gallery for painter Thom Bierdz, hosted by Scarlett Johansson and attended by the likes of Jared Leto — perhaps the first time there was this much flashbulb action in those parts. Howell buzzed around the gallery — checking on the hors d’oeuvres, making sure the paparazzi gave Johansson some breathing room — while she tried not to get nervous over the speech she had to give. The event was a benefit for the Art of Elysium, a nonprofit organization Howell started in 1997 that hooks up hospitalized children with artists and musicians who might read to a group of kids or give one-on-one lessons in painting.
"We find a way for each artist to share their own creative process with the kids," says the Mississippi native. "It is a form of distractive therapy for the children, who are facing medical problems that a lot of people will never face." The Art of Elysium offers artists exposure by arranging a gallery show, for example, or a club date. In return, participants provide free weekly hands-on workshops — including lessons in guitar, keyboards and photography — to more than 1,500 patients annually at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.
Howell left Mississippi when she was 18 to attend film school at Emerson College. She briefly worked in San Francisco as an event planner before she moved to L.A. to pursue a career as a screenwriter. Instead, she ended up throwing parties full time for Universal Studios. However, she found herself moving in a new direction after her childhood best friend lost her 23-year-old boyfriend to leukemia. "I went through the loss over the phone with her," she said. "It made me re-evaluate my life and goals."
Today, she runs the Art of Elysium out of an office on the back lot of Universal Studios, and plans to expand the program to other hospitals around the area and eventually take it national. "I really believe that once people are given an opportunity to help, they do," she says. "I think human nature is a giving and loving spirit."