Founders teams up with muralist to spread joy

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Fifth graders David Garrant, Ava lovely, Becca Hirschman and school reading specialist Karen Cole fundraised and recruited artis
Fifth graders David Garrant, Ava lovely, Becca Hirschman and school reading specialist Karen Cole fundraised and recruited artis
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When three fifth-graders at Founders Memorial School read “Smile Artist” last year in their reading group, they were smitten.

“They were like, maybe we can have him come to our school?” said Karen Cole, the school’s reading specialist who encouraged her three students.

Students Ava Lovely, Becca Hirschman and David Garrant wrote letters, made a video promoting the project, helped organize a bottle drive and basket raffle and secured a PTO grant to pay for the artist. It was a success.

Last Monday, coinciding with World Kindness Day, “Smile Artist” Bren Bataclan arrived at the school in Essex Jct.

Bataclan began his Smile Project 15 years ago when he left some of his paintings around Boston, where he lives, and waited for people to find them. Each piece of artwork came with a single caveat: You can keep the painting only if you promise to smile at random people more often.

What started as a simple street project turned into a full-time job. Today, Bataclan has given away paintings in 70 countries and has been commissioned to paint over 150 murals, mostly in schools.

Leading up to Bataclan’s arrival, Founders students practiced painting in the Filipino-born artist’s festive style, using thick black lines to draw simple characters filled in with vibrant colors.

On his first day at Founders, Bataclan led drawing sessions, teaching students how to put their own twist on his signature characters.

Afterward, the fifth-graders got together in groups of three and each completed a drawing, about 60 in all. These student-drawn characters were then transferred by Bataclan onto the wall for the mural.

There were clocks, calculators, school buses, peace signs, light bulbs and suns, all anthropomorphized with smiling mouths and with eyes, one bigger than the other, Bataclan’s signature look.

Ava, one of the students behind the project, said she liked the simplicity of the drawings.

“The characters were easy to draw,” she said. “If you messed up, you could just turn it into something else.”

Her two schoolmates, Becca and David, said Bataclan’s style was unique, and they loved how every character was smiling.

“A lot of why I like working with kids is that their ideas are usually better than mine,” Bataclan said, laughing.

“Most kids, after drawing a couple of characters will go, ‘Oh, I can draw better than him!’” he said.

The mural, located in a main hallway, features the word “CARES” in large letters, with the students’ transferred drawings placed around it.

CARES is an acronym for the school’s overarching philosophy of Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy and Self-Control.

“Those skills are directly taught to kids in the classroom, and they’re encouraged across the building – all the teachers are on the same page,” principal Wendy Cobb said.

“We’ve been really just as a school community, talking about and living kindness, being nice to each other,” she added. “There is so much negative in the world right now. We just really are pushing kindness big-time.”

Bataclan said this was the first truly kid-driven project he’s been part of. His goal, he said, was to encourage kids to draw who are not really into drawing.

“If they feel empowered to draw on their own, I feel like I have done my job. And so it’s an honor to illustrate or paint what they’ve created,” he said.

Three of Bataclan’s smaller paintings will be left in the surrounding area for the public to find and become a part of the Smile Project. Three of his larger paintings are now hanging in the Founders Learning Center.

Ava said since Bataclan arrived, students have left drawings around the school with a note that says to smile more.

“A lot of kids have been picking them up, and they do smile,” she said.

Cole agreed the energy of the project has spread.

“We already had some classrooms that were putting together bags for the food shelf and they were like, ‘Oh, we should also include a card in it that says something positive and nice,’” she said.

Principal Cobb wants to keep the positive energy going, along with the theme of caring and kindness. She said it brought the community together, and she has already been thinking about the school’s artist-in-residence for next year.

“I really would love to have him back,” she said.