The air is electric when students are excited about a topic and when teachers are able to respond to that excitement in ways that deepen learning. Students in fifth grade experienced that electricity last year with their teachers and PC’s Center for Public Purpose.

The fifth-grade arts curriculum includes discussion of artists who create beautiful works but who also have endured hardships such as blindness or the discrimination female artists faced in earning attention and respect. Those discussions led the fifth graders to collaborate with Kansas-based artist Jeff Hanson.

Hanson is on a mission to help change the world through his work. Hanson’s sight became impaired as a child when he was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis and an optic brain tumor. He turned to painting at the age of 12, creating notecards to keep his mind distracted during chemotherapy treatments, then started an art business out of a lemonade stand; by the time he turned 20, Hanson said, he had donated over a million dollars to charities. Working with acrylic paint on canvas, Hanson utilizes heavily sculpted texture to produce his signature style, which he has dubbed “a sight for sore eyes.”

The PC fifth graders were drawn to, and inspired by, Hanson, especially given that he interweaves the Quaker traditions of peace and community into his art and personal philosophy. His mission statement reads: “Every act of kindness helps create kinder communities, more compassionate nations and a better world for all … even one painting at a time.”

Lower School art teachers Karen Riedlmeier and Michelle Dowd were excited to collaborate with Lower School counselor Lisa Reedich and with Alyson Goodner, director of the Center for Public Purpose, to build on the students’ interest to create an art philanthropy project. Riedlmeier and Dowd worked with students on techniques for creating art inspired by Hanson’s work, with Reedich collaborating on the ways the project could help students evolve social awareness. Goodner contacted the Hanson family in Kansas and worked to help evolve an art lesson into an art philanthropy project.

Art by fifth grader Lukas Parapatt.

“The Center for Public Purpose was very excited to partner with fifth grade on their art philanthropy project,” Goodner said. “We aim to connect students, learn about their interests and the spaces in the community where they want to get more involved.”

The students did the actual work on the project in January and February, and eventually that led, later in the school year, to an online Skype conversation with Hanson. PC was the first pre-K to 12 school school to be invited into Hanson’s studio via video conferencing, allowing both the fifth graders and Hanson to gain a deeper understanding and closeness through each other’s interests and work. And when the Skype connection experienced audio problems, the students immediately shifted into problem-solving mode, ultimately utilizing dry erase boards and markers to keep the communication going.

“It was a beautiful moment,” Goodner said, “watching students be supremely engaged and acting quickly and creatively to overcome an obstacle to continue a deeply valuable conversation.”

As far as the philanthropic effort on Penn Charter’s end, students made printed notecards in the classroom—making art with acrylic paint, something they had never used prior to learning about Hanson—and sold their work to families at Color Day in assorted 4-packs. The students made a significant contribution to the Children’s Tumor Foundation.

Art by fifth grader Ellie Choate.

When the project was completed, the students’ art was turned into a book, with a student’s painting and a personalized letter to Hanson conjoined on adjacent pages. These were sent as a gift to Hanson, who was “so touched by the Jeff Hanson-inspired art and letters from the fifth graders,” according to his mother, Julie Hanson.

“The deeper connection to the artist came out of their fascination with him and his work,” Reidlmeier said. “They were really excited and in wonder and awe of his story. They were buzzing the entire time they were painting and never tired of the topic.”