Alex Haunty’s dream is to play the role of the Beast in the Broadway show “Beauty and the Beast.”
But for now, he’ll settle for bringing beauty to his friends.
For more than two years, Haunty, 21, has raised money through his own artwork to buy tickets for students with disabilities to see Broadway shows at the Overture Center. Despite his own cognitive disabilities, Haunty holds three jobs, attends a program at Edgewood College and with the help of family has created his own Alex Haunty Theatre Arts Fund.
“I like to bless people and make them happy,” Haunty explained, pointing to the paintings he makes in “whimsical colors” to sell as prints and greeting cards.
“I like them to feel inspired,” Haunty said. “That’s why my website is ‘Inspiring Art by Alex.’”
In 2011, Haunty bought tickets for 40 students and caregivers to “Beauty and the Beast” at Overture. Last spring, he hosted 60 for “Mary Poppins.” This month, he’s invited 36 to “Sister Act.”
His generosity has made him a legend in the group sales office at Overture, said group sales manager Heather Harris.
“Alex is a really amazing person,” she said. “He has this bright personality and is super-enthusiastic about everything.”
When Overture arranged for him to meet the lead actor who played Bert in “Mary Poppins” backstage after the show, “I think Alex inspired the actor more than the other way around,” she said.
The arts have always opened paths for Haunty, said his mother, Mary Beth. At age 4, he weighed only 19 pounds and was just starting to learn to walk. He wouldn’t begin to talk for several more years. Though he displayed behaviors of the autism spectrum, young Alex never received a specific diagnosis of autism because of his ability to intensely connect with people, his mother said. His family and his therapists worked around-the-clock to foster his communication skills — and found that creating art was key.
At age 9, Alex began making pottery at Cathy Ostrom’s former Middleton studio, The Art Room.
In middle school and high school he branched into theater, joined chorus and sang a senior recital. Ostrom heard that performance and urged Haunty to get back into art.
She lined up his first art show at Middleton’s Prairie Café, and Haunty discovered that his paintings could sell.
It was an astonishing feat for Haunty’s family, who knew just how far he had come. In his early years, his “severe sensory defensiveness” made sound, touch and light painful.
“His sensory defensiveness made it difficult for him to eat, to walk, to speak,” his mother recalled. “He wasn’t able to draw a square or a circle at his screening tests when he was young. The idea of him being an artist I would have not imagined at that time.”
So when as a teenager he presented her with his first painting, a vibrant yellow floral titled “Flowerworks,” “it was like a window into his feelings,” his mother said. “It overwhelmed me with gratefulness and helped me see even more the creativity that was inside my son.”
In 2011, Haunty won a cash award from Zieman Corp. for his involvement with the Best Buddies friendship program at Middleton High School. Best Buddies pairs students with intellectual and developmental disabilities with other students. Haunty spent his award earnings to treat the group to “Beauty and the Beast.”
These days he has part-time jobs at a law office, a science firm, and at ArtWorking in Madison, a studio for adult artists with cognitive disabilities. He’s enrolled in Cutting Edge, Edgewood’s college program for students with intellectual developmental disabilities. And he markets greeting cards and prints with his art online at inspiringartbyalex.com.
Selling art as a “micro-enterprise” is not unusual for ArtWorking artists, said Chris Hindle, an artist mentor at ArtWorking.
“But the level of (Haunty’s) philanthropy is pretty unique,” Hindle said. “He loves the idea of making the money and turning it around to help others.”