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Six Degrees Of Elysium

In 10 years, the Art of Elysium has become L.A.'s hottest charity. It's all who you know.

January 20, 2008|Monica Corcoran | Times Staff Writer

HAVE you heard of the Art of Elysium? No, it's not an obscure movement of abstract painters or a new burlesque bar on the Sunset Strip. The Art of Elysium is a nonprofit organization, devoted to bringing art and music and fashion to seriously ill children in hospitals, that has suddenly acquired the sort of cool cachet usually reserved for indie bands.

On Jan. 12, the eve of the ill-fated Golden Globes, the charity hosted its first gala to celebrate its 10-year anniversary. The invitation called for black tie and most of the 500 attendees complied. Patricia Arquette looked elegant and exotic in a formal fuchsia sari; Harrison Ford and Zach Braff opted for tuxes with knotted cravats. Even DJ and nightclub impresario Brent Bolthouse -- typically known for his uniform of Converse sneakers and tees -- sported a slightly askew bow tie.

"I was hoping everyone would get in the spirit," the charity's founder, Jennifer Howell, says in her honeyed Memphis drawl. Gliding from guest to guest in an Oscar de la Renta gown, she left no cheek unbussed. "Even Balt wore a tux," she noted with glee.

"Balt" would be actor Balthazar Getty, a longtime supporter of Elysium who co-hosted the evening's fashion show and languorous sit-down dinner with his wife, clothing designer Rosetta. Cartier, Vogue and the Ford Motor Co. jointly sponsored the event held at Vibiana, a restored 130-year-old cathedral in downtown Los Angeles.

As models wearing dresses by Lanvin and Etro pranced down an ad-hoc runway, a choir on the altar belted out a gospel spin on "Stairway to Heaven." For the fashion show finale, four children from local hospitals strutted beneath the marble arches to an echoing ovation.

In a town glutted with worthy causes, it's a wonder that any small charity manages to flourish. What's even more surprising is the fact that celebrities and musicians approach Howell to get involved.

"We don't cold-call people like Joaquin Phoenix," says Howell, who met the actor through Getty. "Everyone has just somehow introduced each other to the organization."

Call it six degrees of Elysium. Phoenix introduced Kirsten Dunst, who prompted Lisa Love, West Coast editor of Vogue, to get involved. He also encouraged Eva Mendes to get on board, and she lassoed Cartier's support.

"I have six children, and so I understand the importance of Elysium," says Frederic de Narp, chief executive of Cartier. In addition to creating a Cartier Love bracelet that would partially benefit the cause, the jewelry house had children design its holiday cards last year and donated the proceeds to Elysium.

For Howell, the gala punctuated a decade of growth and grass-roots support. She started the organization in 1997 after a close friend with leukemia told her about kids at hospitals who were battling illnesses without the support of friends and family. Howell then was working as an event producer for Universal Pictures and conscripted 23 friends to visit Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

"My idea was to get people to bring art -- music or comedy or dancing -- to these children," she recalls. "At that time, I thought I would just volunteer every week. I was 22 and had just moved to L.A."

The hospital persuaded her to up the ante. That year, Howell officially started the nonprofit group and visited 672 children. She and her friends offered workshops on artistic endeavors from joke-writing to painting. Last year, volunteers reached out to 20,000 kids at 11 local hospitals.

"The fashion industry has been one of our biggest supporters," says Howell, who admits she didn't consider clothing design and beauty as potential workshop subjects until a hospital psychologist in the plastic surgery division contacted her. "She had a girl who had over 20 surgeries on her face and she said to me, 'She has her prom coming up, and she just wants to feel pretty. Can you help?' "

Howell quickly enlisted a makeup artist and hair stylist. She also launched a new workshop that matched disfigured and terminally ill children with beauty specialists to help bolster self-esteem. When a group of young girls at a hospital decided to put on a fashion show at the end of an eight-week arts program, Howell brought in stylists.

"These kids who had hair in their face and wouldn't look you in the eye were suddenly marching down the runway so proud," she says. "The key element of this charity is seeing its impact firsthand."

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