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Yes, that’s a painting on a park bench. And it’s yours for free

Browns Point students' drawings highlight professional mural

Sit down (or try to keep up) with Boston-based artist Bren Bataclan as he transforms fifth-graders' sketches into colorful murals at Browns Point Elementary in Tacoma.
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Sit down (or try to keep up) with Boston-based artist Bren Bataclan as he transforms fifth-graders' sketches into colorful murals at Browns Point Elementary in Tacoma.

If you see a brightly colored painting on a park bench in the South Sound today don’t think twice — just take it.

All the artist who made it asks in return: smile more often.

Bren Bataclan has been leaving paintings — more than 2,000 of them — in public places for 15 years.

Although the Boston artist is known for the gifts, his day job is a muralist. That’s what has brought him to Browns Point Elementary School this week.

On Thursday, he was finishing a mural made up of designs created by the school’s fifth-graders.

Earlier in the week, he gave them slips of paper. On each was a simple description: rainbow, whale, traffic cone, peace sign. Their job was to draw it.

The kids created their designs following only one rule: No erasing.

Likewise, when Bataclan draws and paints, he doesn’t erase.

“If I’m forced to slow down, it won’t come out as whimsical,” he said.

After drawing their designs on four panels with the school’s themes of responsibility, respect, safety and kindness, Bataclan started painting Wednesday. The school is to be demolished and rebuilt soon. The mural will be transferred to the new school.

Bataclan, 48, translates the kids’ drawings into his own big-eyed, pop art characters. It’s the same style he developed as a boy in the Philippines.

He moved to Daly City, California, at age 11. He went on to get degrees in graphic design and animation.

After he was laid off from the tech industry in 2003, Bataclan started painting again. Delighted by the response his paintings received, he left 30 of them in public areas around Boston.

On each painting he attached a note.

“This painting is yours if you promise to smile at random people more often,” they read.

Bataclan and others have left 2,500 paintings in all 50 states and 70 countries.

He doesn’t stick around when he leaves a painting. But he leaves his website, bataclan.com, on the note in case someone wants to contact him. They often send photos of themselves with the paintings.

“Nothing beats the smiles of people who find paintings,” he said.

Browns Point parent Jenn Parker heard about Bataclan when a first-grade student told her about the artist. She sent the artist an email earlier this year.

“Just for friendly advice for the students,” Parker said.

Bataclan was soon Skyping with the students, giving them art tips.

“They asked him questions and he showed them some of his work,” Parker said.

Following Bataclan’s Smile Boston Project, the kids made their own small paintings and left them in public places.

“You can have this painting for free just as long as it makes you smile,” Parker wrote in a note attached to each painting.

The school’s PTA decided to bring Bataclan out for the week.

On Thursday, Bataclan was painting on the stage inside the school’s lunchroom. Dozens of students ate lunch while they watched him paint.

“I wish I had this opportunity when I was their age,” Bataclan said, sitting down for lunch after the room had cleared of children. His pants, skin and cell phone were splashed with colors.

“They can come back in 20 or 30 years and say, ‘That’s my rainbow.’ It empowers everyone to draw,” Bataclan said.

He brought four paintings to leave in random public places around the area before he leaves. There was much speculation among the students as to where that would be, but Bataclan was keeping mum.

Ella Martino, 10, was one of the fifth-graders who participated.

“I like to draw a lot but it gave me a new perspective on how to draw,” Martino said. She contributed a drawing showing a teacher instructing two students in front of a chalk board. Bataclan faithfully painted it onto the mural.

Marley Soldan, 10, was told to draw a whale. She’s pretty sure it’s a beluga.

“That’s our school mascot,” Soldan explained. “So, I would probably assume that it’s a beluga.”

She was happy with the way it turned out.

“We’re supposed to make them simple, but not too simple, so you get the idea of what it is,” Soldan said.

The whale is wearing a headband and is pictured with a trophy.

“It’s the best school trophy,” she explained.

Taryn Gintz, 10, was given the task of drawing a peace sign.

“I added some arms and a mouth,” she said. “He added the mustache.”

Gintz drew the peace sign holding a chocolate chip cookie — she’s not sure why. But the fifth-grader agreed the world might be more peaceful if everyone ate more cookies.

The project has changed Gintz’s perspective on art.

“I didn’t really like art because it was basically trying to replicate an artist and what they do,” she said. “Here, you could basically draw whatever you wanted to.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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