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'Heaven' on Earth

The Art of Elysium's "Heaven," the charity's sixth annual gala, is January's hot ticket on the Los Angeles social scene.

Consider the host committee of Hollywood stars, among them Kristen Bell, Rachel Bilson, Sophia Bush, Gerard Butler, Finola Hughes. Camilla Belle, Justin Bartha, Dave and Odette Annable, Alicia Witt, Moby, Kat Von D, Topher Grace, Ahna O'Reilly, Kelly Osbourne, Busy Phillips, Courteney Cox, Joe Manganiello and Amy Smart.

Actor David Arquette is to be honored with the Spirit of Elysium Award. Colleen Atwood, a three-time Oscar winner for costume design, will create the venue, according to her own vision of paradise. Previous honorees Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Eva Mendes and Elijah Wood are expected to attend. And the Jan. 12 affair should net $1 million from sponsorships, donations and tickets priced at $5,000 each.

The always-impressive crowd, along with an ingenious art installation for a venue, help account for the gala's ever-growing popularity, but there are other key factors as well.

Of primary importance is that the charity's 4,000 actors, musicians, filmmakers, writers, fashion designers and other artists care deeply about the cause: bringing art into the lives of children coping with serious medical conditions. They donate their time by doing volunteer work at 17 hospitals, hospices, special-needs schools and outpatient facilities in Los Angeles and five hospitals in New York. The fact that many volunteers are famous came as a side benefit.

"We never went out looking for celebrities," said Jennifer Howell, who founded the organization in 1997. "We look for artists of any kind who can reach inside their hearts and souls and use what they have creatively to help children express themselves."

In Greek mythology, Elysium is where the gods bring fallen heroes after death. The thesaurus gives "heaven" as a synonym — hence, the name of the organization that strives to offer "a place or condition of ideal happiness." Howell said she hopes to bring hospitalized children to that place through creative workshops in acting, fine art, music, fashion design, writing and other pursuits.

Howell founded the organization after a friend who was dying of leukemia had more concern for a young patient than for himself. "I started [Elysium] to honor my friend," she said. "In his last hour, he was thinking more about the child alone in the hospital bed next to him."

She started volunteering in children's wards and brought along friends, most of whom were artists. Given a common belief in the healing power of art, the initial volunteers brought in more volunteers, also artists. "It's all been word of mouth," she said.

David Arquette said he believes the charity's focus on creative expression appeals to the acting community. "That's what's guided us in our lives, and beyond that, it feeds our souls," he said, naming art, drama and dance classes, theater games and a "fun Olympics" among his previous volunteer activities at various medical facilities, "wherever kids need a little fun, something to take their minds off their difficulties."

Such work, he said, "keeps our egos in check and brings us down-to-earth. It keeps us from getting caught up in the stuff that's not real in Hollywood."

Participants continue to rally friends to the cause. James Franco said Kirsten Dunst introduced him to the group at a time when he was achieving career success but not finding inner contentment. "I was grateful for the outside success, but I learned a lot of unhappiness comes when I'm a little too focused on myself," he said.

Through the organization (www.theartofelysium.org), Franco started volunteering by shifting his focus to All Saints HealthCare, a home for patients with complex medical problems. "A loving presence would have been enough for the kids," he said, but because he had experience with acting and writing, Franco and one of the children co-wrote a holiday play. That play is still performed annually, and Dunst has been a cast member.

Colleen Atwood brought her design team to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center to work with children in the outpatient cancer program for Halloween. "It was a great day," said Atwood, who has designed costumes for "Alice in Wonderland," "Chicago," Memoirs of a Geisha" and other films. "The kids were so excited they were trying on one costume after another, sometimes one costume over another, three or four at a time."

The gala helps fund the activities. Since the first one in January 2008, the annual event is traditionally scheduled for the night before the Golden Globe Awards, a date that has helped bring out the stars who are likely to be in town for the kickoff of film awards season. But at the first gala, a surprisingly sizable celebrity attendance resulted from an unexpected circumstance — the cancellation of the 2008 Golden Globes awards ceremony due to a Writers Guild strike.

"Everyone was out here for the Globes," Howell said. "[The women] had their dresses, and they had nowhere to go. Everyone wanted to come to our party."

People — celebrated and otherwise — still do. Howell said last year, many potential guests had to be turned away because of the venue's space limitations.

For that shindig, vintage fashion king Cameron Silver turned Union Station into his idea of a timeless heaven. Other years, downtown's Vibiana , the California Science Center and an underground parking garage have been backdrops for the artistic imaginings of film director Jim Sheridan, musician/painter Mark Mothersbaugh and artist Shepard Fairey, famous for his Barack Obama "Hope" poster.

As this year's Visionary Award recipient, Atwood will imagine her afterworld, noted in the invitation as "where the sea meets the sky in the mist of the eye." In more concrete terms — literally — the gala will take place inside a tunnel in Los Angeles.

Atwood explained the meeting place as the horizon, as seen from the drive along the ocean, which seems to drift through space. "I love it, because I love getting up really early in the morning and taking the drive along the ocean," she said. "It's a really creative time for me."

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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