A winged dragon at Wealthy Elementary School has swollen from notebook-paper sized to several feet tall and wide. A wizard has morphed as well, from small sketch to large-scale painting, and now casts magic from up high with his wand. A peanut-shaped man dances; a robot grins; a creature with a long snout greets a purple-headed beast.
The creations born from the imaginations of East Grand Rapids fourth- and fifth-grade students are now part of a permanent school mural by artist Bren Bataclan, known worldwide for his Smile Boston Project. Students have witnessed their whimsical pencil sketches transform into creative characters.
Bataclan recently spent a week at the school leading workshops on his cartoon-inspired, Anime-influenced technique, and then painting the mural.
All the while, he taught students that a smile goes a long way.
Commissioned by the Wealthy parent-teacher organization to create a mural expressive of the school community, Bataclan turned students’ pictures into characters painted along an upstairs hallway wall. It is one of about 80 murals based on children’s drawings Bataclan has painted at schools over the past 11 years.
Students had applied to draw illustrations for the mural and learned the character style from Bataclan.
“It’s their creation,” Bataclan said. “They become a part of the school’s legacy and history. It’s not just about me; it’s actually mostly about them.”
During Bataclan’s workshop, fourth-grader Will Bennett and fifth-grade student Annie Bruinsma sketched a dragon together, absorbing drawing tips from the artist. Their response to seeing their dragon, green and animated on the wall, fit with the reaction Bataclan’s art tends to get everywhere he goes: big smiles.
“He taught us how to draw the big eyes,” Annie said. “It makes me smile especially to see what I drew.”
Bataclan has proof that a grin can travel far, made possible through his art.
The Boston-based artist started his Smile Boston Project in 2003. Wanting to bring happiness and cheeriness to people across the city, he left his paintings for people to take for free on benches, at schools, train stations, hospitals and senior centers. Each had a note attached that read, “This painting is yours if you promise to smile at random people more often.” He has extended the project and has given out free paintings in all 50 states.
“I love my job,” he said.
Bataclan received his bachelor’s degree in design from the University of California, Los Angeles, and his master’s in computer animation from The Ohio State University. He has taught computer animation and design at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the School of Museum and Fine Arts in Boston.
While continuing his Smile Project, Bataclan teaches students the power of passing out painted grins during school visits through his whimsical, cartoonish work. He shows them they too can create characters, which he stresses have the “least amount of details and maximum amount of personality.”
“Most of the characters are just basic shapes,” he said. “Once they’re circular I ask kids to add the eyes. My trademark look is they have one big eye and one little eye, and most have a giant smile.”
“They are very simple and the kids feel very empowered because 99.9 percent of them can draw.”
Students said they learned to just have fun with art, turn “mistakes” into cool character features and not to erase.
One anonymous student, inspired by Bataclan, left free art on the school wall, with the message to keep it and share smiles.