Smile Like You Mean Art: Paintings Promote Goodwill

When Bren Bataclan started the Smile Project six years ago, he never anticipated that it would spread to 25 states and 35 countries. Yet the project, which Bataclan developed in Boston, has built up a worldwide following as it spreads its message of cheerfulness.

The concept of the Smile Project involves Bataclan leaving paintings in public spaces, with a note inviting passers-by to take the painting. His only request was that in exchange, they make an effort to smile at strangers.

Bataclan was inspired by his perception that smiles were something lacking in everyday life. “I went to graduate school in the Midwest and when I came here I expected hyper-warmth and I didn’t feel it,” Bataclan says. “But then I saw people smiling at my work, and thought giving people my paintings was a way to make them smile. And then I’d get more smiles too.”

With a collection of characters he has been sketching since childhood, Bataclan’s work easily lends itself to inspiring this kind of warmth amongst strangers. His “cartoon-inspired acrylic paintings” feature figures that appear in bright colors with accoutrements such as antennas and bug eyes rendered adorable by the wide grins on their faces.

“My goal is to have the minimum amount of detail with the maximum amount of personality,” Bataclan says. He refers to his characters as “creatures” since they are not exactly human and not exactly animal, but seem more like a friendly visitor from outer space.

Originally, Bataclan moved from San Francisco to be a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Yet today he is busy appearing at art festivals, illustrating children’s books, and exhibiting at the American consulate and embassy of his native Philippines. “If you’d asked me seven years ago if I’d paint full-time, I’d laugh” he says.

The majority of his business comes from commissions, which is what enables the Smile Project to continue. “Each month I save X amount of money, and leave five to 15 paintings,” Bataclan says. “In lean times just five, in really good times I leave more.”

In the past year the message associated with the project has changed, though the ultimate goal remains the same. Since the economic downturn began last year, Bataclan changed the notes to proclaim a message that “Everything will be alright.”

“I feel like, as an artist, this is one of the best ways that I can help out right now,” Bataclan says. Since he changed his note, Bataclan has begun leaving more paintings in unemployment offices, hoping that this timely message will also be able to bring people comfort.

Since Bataclan is a local artist, residents of Boston and Cambridge have a greater opportunity to see his work. The mural at Berryline’s Arrow Street location is one permanent example, but there’s also a good chance that locals will be able to personally participate in the Smile Project. “I’ve left a lot in Harvard Square. It’s probably my favorite spot,” he says.

“It’s fun to leave them around schools because students don’t hesitate to pick up things for free,” Bataclan says. “I find that non-college students, or older people, are a little more cynical. They think it’s tied into some kind of product placement.”

“I get shy when people pick them up,” he says, explaining why he no longer waits to see if people will pick up his paintings. Even if he were to wait for someone, he wouldn’t be waiting long. “Most get picked up within three to 30 minutes, at least in America,” he says.

As for other parts of the world, “It’s a free-for-all,” he says. Bataclan takes one major vacation a year and brings a suitcase full of paintings along; the rest are distributed by family and friends during their own travels. “I’m not independently wealthy,” he explains.

But clearly for Bataclan, wealth is secondary to happiness, a quality he seems to be bursting with. “How can I complain?” he asks. “This is my first pain-free type of work.”

—Staff writer Kerry A. Goodenow can be reached at goodenow@fas.harvard.edu.