…like smiling!

Last night, J and I took the T into town, where we attended the Boston premiere of David Tamés’ Smile Boston Project, a short documentary on the work of Bren Bataclan. I’ve blogged about Bataclan before: first when he brought his whimsical paintings to Keene to cheer us after the dismal floods of October, 2005, and next when J commissioned him to paint charmingly cartoonish portrait of Reggie.

The premise behind Bataclan’s “Smile Boston Project” is simple enough, and he’s translated the basic concept to dozens of locales far from Boston. In an attempt to spread the love, Bataclan leaves original paintings of his brightly colored characters in public spaces–on benches, inside college student centers, and elsewhere–with notes attached telling people they can have the paintings for free if they “promise to smile at random people more.”

Bren Bataclan with friends

In Tamés’ documentary, a camera chronicles one painting as it sits on a bench in a crowded Boston park, passersby pausing to consider it while others go about their business and at least one homeless man sleeps on a nearby bench. In interviews with people who were brave enough to take one of the paintings, Tamés shows how most folks’ initial reaction to the notion of paintings free for the taking was one of disbelief: surely there isn’t someone out there who is handing out art in exchange for a simple promise!

Bren Bataclan with friends

And yet, the promise behind the paintings is true. Tamés documentary explains how Bataclan, who went to college in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, was surprised to discover when he moved to Boston that people here don’t make eye contact, smile, and say hello the way they do in the Midwest. More than 15 years after my own move to New England, I still share Bataclan’s reaction: when J and I walk with or without our dogs on the streets of lush and leafy Newton, we’re continually amazed at how many folks do not return our gaze or respond to our hellos. A graphic artist who, after the dot-com bubble burst, was relieved to discover that Boston art-appreciators would actually buy his paintings, Bataclan has spent the past five years trying to thank the people of Boston and beyond by literally giving people something to smile about.

Characters galore

Several of the “serious art critics” who discuss Bataclan’s work in Tamés’ documentary raise the question of whether his cartoonish characters, painted in a “primitive” style that changes little from painting to painting, are “really” art. And yet the gushingly appreciative folks who actually claimed Bataclan’s paintings–and the satisfied customers who willingly spend money to buy Bataclan’s gallery pieces–universally agree that the paintings make them happy. Do paintings qualify as “Art” only if they are serious and somber? Are brightly colored paintings that try for nothing more than to make viewers smile too simple to be “Art”?

Notebook doodles

In Smile Boston Project, Bataclan lists Keith Haring, who made fine art out of street art, as one of his inspirations, and the connection between Bataclan and Haring is apparent. In several previous posts, I’ve grappled with the question of whether street art is “Art,” and you can infer my own stance in the debate from the fact that I have an entire blog category dedicated to graffiti. The first time I snapped photos of the graffiti-covered walls of Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge, I went specifically to see Bataclan’s work there. Although his images have long since been covered with those by other spray-can-wielding street artists, Bataclan’s paintings feature the same bold colors and clean lines you’ll see in larger-than-life street murals, the eye-grabbing “pop” of this kind of Pop Art deriving more from the bold statement of in-your-face images than from the subtle nuance of more “refined” works.

High tech, low tech

Bren Bataclan’s “Smile Boston Project” is definitely fun…but is it art? Whether or not the stern-faced critics nod in the affirmative is, to me, beside the point. Like performance art, Bataclan’s street-freebies invite viewers to get actively involved in the message by passing on the smiles the paintings inspire. Skeptics say it’s not possible for an artist to survive by giving his work away for free; one critic interviewed in Smile Boston Project suggests that Bataclan is more a marketer than an artist, his free paintings being nothing more than a public relations gimmick. But if we decry gimmickry for its superficiality, shouldn’t we also decry the kind of smug superiority that suggests skepticism is more valuable than smiles? One of the welcome outcomes of art is the way it conquers skepticism to suggest anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible task of melting New England reserve to bring a child-like glee to the streets of Boston.

This is my day-late contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, I’m feeling… Today’s photos are from an assortment of Bren Bataclan encounters: the first from last night’s Boston premiere of David Tamés’ Smile Boston Project, the next two from Bataclan’s appearance at this year’s Beacon Hill Art Walk, and the rest from a January visit to Bataclan’s studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Enjoy!

A striking likeness

It’s not everyday when someone sneaks around behind your back to orchestrate the perfect present. J initially struggled to figure out what to get me for Christmas, and perhaps my giving him Patriots tickets for his birthday didn’t make matters any easier. But about a month ago, he claimed to have the Perfect Idea. “You’ll never guess” was all he’d say about the gift-in-the-making; all I knew was at several points he surreptitiously mailed envelopes I wasn’t allowed to see.

Smile, Keene

Those envelopes, it turned out, were addressed to artist Bren Bataclan, whose “Smile Boston” project I’d blogged when it took a road trip to Keene, NH after the flood of October, 2005. I didn’t claim the smiley-faced painting I found at the Keene State College student center back in 2005, figuring that someone else needed a smile more than I did. But the first time I visited J’s house, I smiled to see a Bren Bataclan painting in his living room: not one he found, but one he’d bought. On the secret checklist of “good traits” and “bad traits” every woman keeps when she first meets a man, I silently checked one in the “good” column: “Supports local artists.”

I knew Bren Bataclan painted whimsical, brightly colored characters; I didn’t know that he also accepts commissions to paint cartoon-like pet portraits. Now that I’ve seen Reggie’s cartoon alter-ego, I have to say the pairing is perfect. Reggie’s personality has always been goofy, and his orange poofiness is a perfect subject for painted whimsy. Bren perfectly captured the big, silly fluffiness of a dog he’s never met, thanks in large part to the various photographed portraits J took and secretly sent in those envelopes I wasn’t allowed to see.

In my opinion, the Perfect Present is one you never even thought to ask for, something you wouldn’t have bought yourself but you can’t imagine living without once you’ve received it. J’s commission of this portrait perfectly qualifies. “Loves me, loves my pet” is one of those good traits I’ve silently checked on my secret checklist of good and bad traits, and this year’s Christmas present merely highlighted that fact. It’s not everyday that someone transforms your beloved baby into a whimsical work of art.

Thanks to J for photographing Reggie posing alongside his portrait, which is still wrapped in plastic to prevent him from licking his likeness.

Rain-soaked quad

This is what the campus of Keene State College looked like yesterday, when day-long rains turned the quad in front of Huntress Hall into a sloshy swamp. Huntress is presumably haunted, but these days it isn’t ghosts that disturb my dreams but the seemingly ceaseless sound of raindrops and the possible floods they presage.

Rain-soaked foliage

With all the rain and flood-warnings we’ve had here in the Monadnock region over the past few weeks, I’m starting to think we’re suffering Post Torrential Stress Disorder. In the antediluvian days, I used to enjoy the sound of raindrops on windows: there was nothing cozier than the thought of curling up in bed with a book while wet weather raged outside. These days, though, my stomach sinks when I hear the sound of rain. Even though my house was spared the worst of the flood damage, I find myself worrying that my luck won’t hold: what if the cellar floods? What if the furnace fails? How can I curl up in bed with a book if I lose my heat, hot water, and power (again)?

Although most of Keene has recovered from the worst of the flooding, I still hear from my porch the sound of pump motors and gurgling water-tubes from neighbors’ basements: no sooner do their cellars start to drain but another round of rain begins, filling basements like wells. Over two weeks after the flood, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing drenched piles of belongings along curbsides and filled Dumpsters in neighbors’ yards as clean-up continues to continue. Long after my landlord drained my cellar, yellow-jacketed Disaster Relief crews still frequent nearby houses where the fight against damp, mold, and mildew is not yet over…and in today’s newspaper, there’s grisly news of another sort of clean-up as the bodies of missing residents are being gradually recovered among wayward flood debris.

Fallen leaves

In light of these reminders of the real toll of our recent floods, it seems petty to complain about smaller losses, but complain I shall. With so many rainy and overcast days, it’s been all but impossible to take decent pictures, light being my favorite photographic effect. Coming during a warm year when the changing leaves were behind schedule, weeks worth of rain and wind have stripped much of the usual autumnal color before we had a chance to enjoy it, meaning that the ground under trees is often more colorful than the trees themselves.

Autumn ivy

Autumn is supposed to be the Grand Prize associated with living in New England: the reward for enduring long winters. But here in October, before winter has rightly started, I find myself already fed-up with New Hampshire weather, wondering how I’m going to make it through cold gray days and long winter nights without the pre-game nutriment of dry, crisp air and bright, sun-saturated foliage. Yesterday I kept ruminating on that line in Moby-Dick where Ishmael laments the depression of a “damp, drizzly November in my soul”: here in the midst of October, an unthinkably long time before spring, I’m already feeling the weight of weather, wondering if taking a quick trip to the tropics could serve as a Melvillean “substitute for pistol and ball.”

Smile, Keene

And yet, in the midst of such rain-drenched despair, yesterday I happened upon an odd, out-of-place thing: a bright, cheeringly child-like painting left on a window sill in the Student Center at Keene State College, accompanied by a motivational note. Although I didn’t take this freely offered painting, having no need for additional art in my home and feeling that someone else might need more than me a reminder to smile at random people more often, I smiled to think that Bren Bataclan (or one of his minions) had ventured all the way to Keene to share some post-flood love from his Smile Boston Project. (Click here for a larger version.) Yes, we need more than just an occasional ray of light here in southwest New Hampshire: yes, we need the hope that only a smile (or a painting traded for the promise of a smile) can bring. This morning, the rain has stopped here in Keene, and although everything is still soaked and soggy, we just might make it through October after all.

    If you’re a writer and something other than the weather has got you down, there’s still time to register for next week’s Move That Boulder tele-group, a free virtual workshop for writers facing daunting projects. So if you’re burdened with an unwritten dissertation, novel, proposal, story, or other troublesome writing project, click here for more details, including registration information. Enjoy!