29 May 2009

Bren Bataclan's Smile Project

Photo courtesy of Michael Maloney / The Chronicle
A Boston-based Filipino artist, Bren Bataclan, has been making waves across the US with his project he called "The Smile Project". His cheerful cartoon creatures have been exhibited in some high places: at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in Logan International Airport and even on a Girl Scout patch.

But lately he's been leaving his artwork outside unemployment offices and closed-down retail stores across the country bearing the note: "Everything is Going to Be Alright - This Painting is Yours to Take."

"The economy is so bad now. People are losing their jobs, so this is how I can help," said Bataclan, 40, as he propped an acrylic painting of a horned creature with googly eyes and fangs next to an Embarcadero BART ticket machine.

The Boston artist stealth-deposited his canvases throughout San Francisco over his holiday family visit, in places such as the Financial District, where he figured he'd find a concentration of economically stressed-out people. He wants to give away 30 of his artworks, which sell for anywhere between US$ 95 and US$ 400.

His artistic twist on paying it forward allows Bataclan to fight the recession funk, bring art to gallery outsiders, and live out his fantasy of being a graffiti artist without actually defacing anything.

"I am expressing myself and helping others at the same time. That's a pretty good combination," Bataclan said.

Since 2003, he's left 400 free paintings in 20 U.S. cities and 20 countries. On his Web site, finders pose with his creations and tell how his work brought them cheer. Strangers open up to him about their chemotherapy, their bankruptcies, their failing marriages.

"The free paintings typically get picked up between three to 30 minutes," said Bataclan, adding that the recipients of his paintings would e-mail him thereafter for feedbacks. "Some even send me photos and few visit me in my studio."

The Smile Project has been capturing the media’s attention since its inception. It has been featured in several publications that include Reader’s Digest both the US and Asian version; Smithsonian Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Filipinas Magazine, The Detroit Press, and Chicago Tribune among many others across the US. He has also graced interviews with other local TV news and magazine programs in the US.

The buzz Bataclan has created acts as his public relations arm - much in the same way Keith Haring launched a career as one of the country's most sought-after muralists after he anonymously drew chalk cartoons in the New York subways in the 1980s.

Bataclan's name has begun trickling from the art magazines and blogs to the mainstream media, and he's getting enough commissions to pursue his art full time. His murals dot schools, hospitals and libraries throughout Boston.

It all started with the dot-com bust. After working at several design firms and teaching computer animation at the University of Massachusetts, Bataclan found himself out of a job in 2000. He returned to his childhood fascination with doodling, and decided to show his cartoons at the Cambridge Open Studios event. He sold 49 of 56 works.

Delighted, amazed and giddy, he decided to thank Boston for patronizing his art by leaving free paintings around town with a note asking only one thing in return: to smile at strangers more often.

"I plan to paint, do my street art and spread joy for the rest of my life; and, of course, to represent the Philippines in the art world and beyond," he averred. Bataclan brings his paintings with him whenever he travels outside Boston and leave them on park benches, train stations, hospitals, senior centers, etc.

Some of the feedbacks Bataclan has received so far have all been very positive. Recent recipients from Alaska emailed Bataclan and told him how his paintings have affected their lives. One recipient said she "liked the note attached to the painting. So simple and fresh. It reminds me of what a perfect world it would be."

Yusef Beckles, a San Francisco graphic designer and self-described "guerrilla artist," was deeply touched that another artist gave him a personal work for free.

"This," he said, holding up the Bataclan painting he found in the BART station, "is the most precious and true thing an artist can do."

For more information about The Smile Project, Bataclan invites readers to visit his website at www.bataclan.com.