Difference Maker

Bob Hansman's inner-city art program became so much more

City Faces, started as an arts activity for St. Louis kids, now includes help with homework, library skills, basic cooking, and other classes.

By , Staff writer

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    Jovan Hansman (l.) and his adoptive father, Bob Hansman, enjoy time together at Bob’s apartment in downtown St. Louis. As Bob's City Faces children's arts program celebrates its 20th anniversary, it also has a new director: Jovan Hansman.
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When Bob Hansman started a "back porch art club," he says, he viewed it as a small kindness to some neighborhood kids. He had no idea that it would change the course of his life.

It was the early 1990s and Mr. Hansman, a professor of architecture and design at Washington University, was living uncomfortably in downtown St. Louis.

"The neighborhood was imploding," he recalls, scarred by "drugs and arson."

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But there was also "a little posse of 8-year-old boys" who used to hang around his house, offering to take his garbage out. One day he invited them in. They saw Hansman's drawings and were fascinated. So he invited them to come by on Saturday afternoons and take drawing lessons. Occasionally he'd also take them to a museum.

It was a fun little project, but it didn't last. Neighborhood conditions worsened ("seven of my friends got shot," Hansman says), so he moved to the suburbs.

"But I felt guilty about leaving the city," says Hansman, a native of the area.

A friend of his with a connection to the arts had a suggestion: How about helping the city – and some children – by running a more formal city-based arts program?

Hansman was intrigued by the idea and was eventually led to Clinton-Peabody – one of the city's more notorious public housing projects – where the Catholic settlement association Guardian Angel was looking for someone to run a summer arts program.  [Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the name of the housing project and the identity of Guardian Angel.]

He signed up. "I really didn't know what I was walking into," Hansman says.

His first week at Clinton-Peabody there was a murder on-site.

However, that didn't stop a group of kids from wanting to sketch. He kept it informal. "I showed up with dry boards and sat on the curb."

Soon, a cluster of would-be young artists was drawing along with him.

And so City Faces was launched, with regular drawing classes on Saturdays throughout the summer. The first couple of years attendance varied from a dozen to 20 students. At their core was a dynamic pair of boys: Tito, a teen who showed real talent as a cartoonist, and Jermaine, a natural leader whose seriousness of purpose held the respect of his peers.

Guardian Angel was pleased by the degree of student enthusiasm for the classes and offered Hansman an abandoned food pantry to turn into a studio. The program seemed to be settling on solid ground.

And then tragedy struck. Tito disappeared into the world of gang violence at just about the same time that Jermaine – who had kept a diagnosis of sickle cell anemia a secret from all – suddenly died.

Hansman, distraught, thought the program might be over.

But there was someone else even more devastated. Tito's 15-year-old brother, Jovan, says he spent the night after Jermaine's death walking through some of the city's most dangerous streets in the dark and rain, wondering if his own life was over.

Jovan lived with his mother and brothers at Clinton-Peabody. His mother struggled with alcoholism. He had never met his father. Tito and Jermaine – Jovan's best friend – had been his lifelines. Now they were gone.

"Somehow," Jovan says, "I knew that there could be a better life for me out there somewhere." But he felt helpless to find it.

Not sure where else turn, he called the art teacher who had become a father figure to many of his students. "Could I come and live with you?" he asked.

"I hardly even knew who he was," Hansman recalls. Jovan had been coming to the art classes all along but had been a quiet presence.

"I liked to draw Bart Simpson and the Ninja Turtles," Jovan says, but mostly he liked to be close to Tito and Jermaine.

Hansman hesitated for a few seconds, he says, and then said, "Sure." He picked up Jovan that very night.

The two were awkward roommates in the early days. Jovan had never seen the suburbs before: "They looked liked TV-land." And Hansman wasn't quite sure what to do with the boy he barely knew.

Eventually, however, the pieces fell into place. At first, Jovan spent his days in his room drawing. When Hansman came home at night he would critique Jovan's artwork – a process they both enjoyed. Soon, the two began sharing meals and conversation. Jovan enrolled in an alternative school to work toward a high school diploma. Before they knew it, the arrangement began to take on a permanent look.

One day Jovan asked Hansman: "Have you ever thought about adopting me?"

So on May 15, 2002, the two went to court and made it formal. "It was the happiest day of my life," says Jovan Hansman, who took his adoptive father's name.

That's not to say that things were perfect. Jovan's presence in Bob's all-white suburb caused a stir, and eventually tense racial relations drove the pair back into the city.

In other ways, however, things were getting better. Instead of sinking after Jermaine's death, City Faces soared. An exhibit of the kids' artwork, organized to honor Jermaine, won both state honors and national acclaim.

At the same time, Jovan's art began to attract attention, leading him to establish his own studio and a career as a portrait painter.

But art isn't the only career choice that Bob and his son have in common. Today, as City Faces celebrates its 20th anniversary, the program has a new director: Jovan Hansman.

City Faces now operates year-round, four days a week, and is less about art and more about life skills: Kids are assigned mentors and focus on help with homework, library skills, basic cooking, and classes such as karate.

Recently, Peabody Elementary School, a public school near Clinton-Peabody – where many City Faces participants are students – has allowed the group (which includes up to 30 kids at a time) to expand into its kitchen and gym.

Central to the program's success these days are student volunteers from Washington University, many of whom become involved after taking Bob's very popular Community Building, Building Community class, which sends Wash U students out of the classroom and into some of the most troubled neighborhoods in St. Louis.

Community Building is an eye-opening class for many Wash U students.

Listening to Bob talk about St. Louis and its least-privileged residents is "life-changing," says Audrey Ball, a Wash U freshman who volunteers for City Faces. "I realized that I'd been living in a bubble."

Enthusiastic students like Ms. Ball keep the program afloat with an annual fundraiser, which covers all of the City Faces expenses except for Jovan's salary, which Bob finances himself.

Over the year, Bob has received numerous professional awards, including a Missouri Arts Award, induction into the Omicron Delta Kappa National Leadership Honor Society, and the Rosa L. Parks Award for Meritorious Service to the Community.

But Bob says that no other accomplishment in life has brought him as much satisfaction as his role as adoptive father.

"He saved my life," Jovan often says of his father. "Without him I'd be dead or in prison."

But that goes two ways, Bob says. "Jovan saved my life, too. Without him there would be no real meaning. He fills in the missing pieces."

The two men say that there's nothing they like better than being together, sharing sushi and conversation – unless it's spending time with 11-year-old Jovan Hansman Jr., Bob's only grandchild.

For Jovan, it's now all about giving back. His adoptive father, he says, gave him the greatest gift one can receive.

"He set an example," Jovan says. "He showed me how to live. I was looking for someone to do that for me."

And now, dozens of young City Faces participants are looking to Jovan Hansman, hoping he'll do the same for them.

Help youths worldwide

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