Ontario man’s ‘Paint with Jeff’ goes viral on TikTok, helps special needs community

TORONTO — An Ajax, Ont. man has become an artistic internet sensation, thanks to his TikTok and Instagram accounts called ‘Paint with Jeff.’

Jeff Mitsuo’s process and paintings are featured in the video clips, which have been viewed millions of times on the social media platforms. It’s an ongoing project for Mitsuo, made possible with the help of his friend, Jake Stevens.

“Jeff and I went to high school together,” Stevens told CTV News Toronto. “I was assigned to work in his special needs class and we’ve just been friends ever since.”

Mitsuo was born with Cerebral Palsy and a developmental delay. Stevens says there are often limitations when it comes to what activities they can do together, and that painting was a new discovery for them this past year.

“Once the pandemic started, I wanted to find new activities that we could do inside,” explained Stevens. “So we ended up trying painting together!”

Stevens captured videos of Mitsuo painting to show his parents how much their son was enjoying it. He says the videos were so joyful that they decided to share them on TikTok. From there, Mitsuo’s ‘Paint With Jeff’ account took off.

“It started to blow up,” Stevens said. “He had like 20,000 views on a video, and it just snowballed into one million, two million and then a couple videos hit 16 million.”

Stevens admits that he was nervous exposing his friend online, but that the overwhelming reaction to ‘Paint with Jeff’ has been positive.

“[Jeff] personally enjoys when I share the comments with him,” Stevens said. “I’ll like read them, like, ‘oh Jeff you’re a famous artist now and people all over the world love you’. They love his art, and that makes it all worth it.”

Mitsuo’s art has had so much exposure that followers on his accounts began asking if they could purchase his paintings. Stevens set up an Etsy account, and before long Mitsuo had sold more than 3,000 pieces to buyers from around the world.

“It just brings a smile to [Jeff’s] face that people are buying his art, so it’s pretty cool,” Stevens added.

Stevens is now a teacher at R.S. McLaughlin CVI in Oshawa, and turned to a special needs class at the school for help packaging all of Mitsuo’s painting orders. He says the students love it, and it’s been a fun way to make the whole process one done by people with special needs.

Now, Mitsuo and Stevens are using some of the money from the art sales to give back.

“We went to Pickering high school together and what we’ve done is we created a bursary for students who have special needs at high school, at least for the next 10 years,” Stevens said. “We’ve donated to the Federation for Cerebral Palsy, this year we’re going to donate to the Niagara Junior Ice Dogs.”

For Mitsuo, painting has become a new way to express himself. While being interviewed by CTV News Toronto, he says his favourite colour is blue and that his favourite painting is a recent one of a tree and a starry night.

Stevens says he hopes ‘Paint with Jeff’ is the kind of project that will inspire others to find their passions, and their people who will support them.

“The thing that I really try to promote with these videos is making art accessible for everybody,” he said. “So regardless of a disability, or fine motor skills, finding ways or tools or techniques or whatever it might be to benefit or enjoy art, I try to have one or two ways of creating something that otherwise might not be possible.”

He adds that Mitsuo will continue painting and sharing his process with his million followers on TikTok and thousands of followers on Instagram.

“We’re just having fun and it’s just another day for us and people can watch the process, which is really cool,” said Stevens. “So for me, it’s just continuing to grow off that and find things that he enjoys.”

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