“He added beauty, cheerfulness, generosity, gratitude—and his ability to make us see.”

From a Washington Post column by David Von Drehle headlined “How a nearly blind artist created a brighter world”:

Buildings across Kansas City were saturated in colored light the other night. Granted, it’s Christmastime, but on this particular evening the warm palette awhirl over the swirls of architect Moshe Safdie’s performing arts center was in tribute to the artist and philanthropist Jeff Hanson.

Degas said that art is not what one sees, but what one can make others see. Picasso elaborated on the idea. “There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot,” he observed, “but there are others who, with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.”

If Hanson painted what he saw, he would not have sold thousands of paintings for hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars each, because he was very nearly blind. A childhood tumor on his optic nerve destroyed most of his ability to see — a problem his father, an emergency physician, discovered when he urged his son to look at the stars one night and Jeff saw only the dark.

He began painting at age 12 as a distraction from chemotherapy and radiation treatments, advancing quickly from rudimentary watercolors to his mature style. Hanson worked with acrylics applied so thickly that he could feel his art by running his fingers over the ridges and hollows of dried paint. This topography was filled, like so many pots and puddles, with bursts of vivid color evocative of flowers, stained glass, cityscapes, or the simple joy of pattern and hue. His paintings expressed the happiness of a young man who said of his illness, “I smiled my way through it.”

His art is decorative rather than intellectual or conceptual. . . .But surely it matters whether a work is fundamentally honest — that is to say: Does a piece of art genuinely express something in the artist’s nature? If the artist’s nature is to see beauty when it is barely visible, and to express beauty where there is too little, then decorative art would be the most sincere and highest expression of that nature.

That was Jeff Hanson’s nature. When I met him about a decade ago, he was a high school senior in thick glasses with pastel frames who had an impressive array of friends, both unknown and well-known. Through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, he had met Elton John during the singer’s visit to Kansas City and presented John with a $1,000 check for his AIDS charity, which Hanson had earned by selling painted notecards. Charmed and impressed, John became a champion of Hanson and his work.

That was among the first of many large gifts. Hanson announced an ambition to raise $1 million for charities by the time he was 20 by auctioning art and related clothing designs. After passing that mark, he raised the bar to $10 million by the time he was 30. He had passed $6.5 million in October, when doctors diagnosed a new tumor in his brain. He was 27 when he died on December 20. . . .

What has 2020 been about if not the fragility of things we like to think of as permanent? . . .Schoolchildren have missed out on field trips; teenagers have lost their proms and graduations; audiences have lost their entertainments; athletes have lost their Olympic Games; breadwinners have lost their livelihoods; grandparents have lost their visitors; communities have lost their cohesion. These losses of security, jobs, businesses, camaraderie, adventures, milestones, trust and confidence all darken the path to a socially distanced holiday season. “O lost, and by the wind grieved,” as Thomas Wolfe wrote so evocatively.

To find examples of addition in the midst of so much subtraction is a kind of redemption. It has been my way of groping through a difficult year. Jeff Hanson was a grand addition to his portion of the world, a portion he was continually enlarging. He added beauty, cheerfulness, generosity, gratitude — and his ability to make us see sunshine in a yellow spot. May we all add gifts, as we’re able.

David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”

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