Michele Leong & Andrew Thompson
Primary Source: Global Art Traditions in the United States
March 12, 2008
Murals, Community, and Collaboration
When we got this field-based assignment, the first mural that immediately came to mind was one at the Kennedy School in Somerville. We had heard about it from the artist, Bren Bataclan, who started the Smile Boston Project. This was his first outdoor piece, and the impetus for the mural was especially intriguing to us as educators.
Located on a fence at this elementary school, the mural was commissioned in the summer of 2007 by two neighbors who were frustrated by the graffiti that had previously covered the fence, as well as by the city’s attempts to cover the graffiti. In the mural, one can see five of Bataclan’s “characters,” as he calls them: three are larger than the others and are clumped together, as well as painted from the neck up. To their right, one can see a rabbit character, and to its right, a “floating” yellow character.
Because the colors are so bright (Bataclan chooses vivid colors that represent the colors found in the Philippines, where he was born), they were immediately welcoming to us. These characters are whimsical and inviting, from their warm colors to their cheerful smiles. Even on a cold and very windy winter day, we felt heartened and welcomed by the characters, who give the park a friendly feel. The juxtaposition of these playful characters with the children’s playground a few feet away seemed a perfect melding of mural and community.
Having spoken with the artist, we learned that the piece has no title; in fact, Bataclan consciously does not title his artwork, so that those who find or purchase them can “have a sense of ownership.” This decision of his reflects the interaction that his mural seems to ask of the community; in fact, while we were taking pictures of the piece, a little girl seemed delighted as she smiled at the different characters, pointing them out to her parents.
Even the characters in this piece represent Bataclan’s work to meld community and art. While some of these characters were ones that he had made before, he adapted them to fit the space. For example, the rabbit character (second from the right) originally had sharp teeth, but Bataclan blunted them for this piece. Furthermore, the cat on the far left is based on the tremendously loving cat owned by the couple who commissioned the piece. Bataclan’s desire to preserve his own vision and culture while meeting community needs and desires makes this art distinctive.
Bataclan also told us that for this, his first outdoor piece, he was challenged by what materials to use. Not only did he have to research different outdoor paints that could withstand Boston’s extreme weather conditions, but he had to make the transition from the smaller brushes he has normally used to the larger ones that he ultimately decided on. Again, Bataclan told an anecdote that speaks perfectly to the collaborative component of the mural painting process: last summer, while he was painting the mural, several teachers from the Kennedy School noticed him at work. According to Bataclan, the teachers interacted with him, excited about the mural that was going up, and even offered him the sturdy, large brushes that their students use to help him finish the project.
For us, the collaborative nature of Bataclan’s mural is part of the appeal. Not only is the mural a cheery, beckoning piece of art, but it is also a project that has clearly engaged members of the community—from the neighbors who wanted to cover up inappropriate graffiti (and had paid for the project out of their own pockets), to the teachers who interacted with Bataclan, and to the little girl who happily played alongside the characters. It is heartening that in the months since the mural has gone up, there is no further sign of graffiti on the fence. Though this mural, with its five characters, may seem simple at first glance, upon closer examination, and with the added advantage of knowing its context, it is in actuality a thought-provoking piece that reflects the positive nature of collaboration between the artist, his work, and the community at large.