By Trish Fontanilla
I first heard about Bren Bataclan over 10 years ago when I went to an event at Berryline in Harvard Square. I told one of the owners that I wanted “dealer’s choice,” any froyo with any toppings. The exchange went something like…
“How about I add mango?”
“Oh, how Filipino…”
“You’re Filipino? The artist that did the murals here is Filipino!”
I was so stoked, I obviously gave Bren a shout out in my Berryline review, and I’ve been following his work every since. I'm so glad BOSFilipinos gave me an excuse to interview him, and I’m excited for even more people to get to know Bren’s story!
Where are you and your family from?
Bren: My parents were born in Makati, Philippines, and their ancestors are from Cavite and Bicol. I was born in Makati as well, but my family moved to the United States (Daly City, CA) in 1981.
What do you do?
Bren: I am a full-time artist. I live in Cambridge but my studio is in the South End (Boston).
In past interviews you’ve talked about your previous career as a tech guy. What inspired you to be an artist? And when did you make the leap to doing it full-time?
Bren: I moved to Massachusetts to teach computer graphics at UMass Amherst in 1995. I then joined the dotcom world in the late 90s. When the whole economy crashed in the early 2000s, I became one of those ex-dotcomers who lost their job and could not find work. I was unemployed for about a year and a half, and it was one of the most challenging times of my life. I tried all kinds of creative things to make money, including painting the cartoon-like characters I've been drawing since I was a kid. I premiered this new series of work from childhood at the Cambridge Open Studios in 2003. To my surprise, 49 out of 56 paintings were sold! To thank Cambridge and Boston, I started a street art project where I left paintings in public spaces with a note attached saying, "This painting is yours if you promise to smile at random people more often." I invested the money I earned from the open studio event, and made 30 additional paintings which I gave out around the city. The Boston press and word-of-mouth got me painting projects with businesses, hospitals and schools. Slowly, my street art project led to me becoming a full-time artist. Sixteen years later, and there is no turning back. I love my job!!! I never thought that I would become a full-time artist, let alone a muralist. Now I have painted about 175 murals, mostly at schools. It's awesome to work with students, and all of my school murals are based on kids' drawings.
Your pieces have a joyful, playful spirit to them, and I love the pay-it-forward Smile Project that you highlighted here and in your TEDx Talk. However, your Liberty For All piece has a different tone. What inspired you to create it and donate all the proceeds?
Bren: Right after the 2016 election, a family in Acton asked me to paint how I felt about Trump winning. They cleared a large wall, asked me to find the biggest canvas, and most importantly, they allowed me to paint whatever I felt. I am glad that I didn't start painting right away because I probably would have painted something negative. After taking some time I was able to muster enough positive, hopeful and compassionate thought, and I ended up painting the Statue of Liberty comforting really vulnerable people (a Black Lives Matter activist, a Jewish man, a Muslim woman, the Syrian boy pulled from the rubble of an Aleppo bombing, a Mexican American woman, a gay man, and a woman fighting for equal rights). I am really proud of this piece.
How long have you been in Boston?
Bren: 22 years.
What are your favorite Boston spots?
Bren: The ICA and MFA. We subscribe to the A.R.T. and the Celebrity Series, and so we are always at the Loeb Theater, Symphony Hall, and Sanders Theatre. I also love the Public Garden.
Do you have a favorite Boston-based mural or project?
Bren: The Boston Children's Hospital (pictured above) painting series I did in the beginning of my art career, the Sidney Borum mural (pictured below) I painted fairly recently, and the Berryline murals (pictured above the Filipino food section) in Cambridge I painted about 10 years ago.
What's your community superpower?
Bren: I love starting groups, especially Filipino-related ones. I helped form the Boston Filipino American Book Club, and we just celebrated our 10th Anniversary!
On Filipino Food...
What's your all time favorite Filipino dish?
Bren: Way too many to mention: lumpia (spring roll), adobo (marinade, generally a meat dish), empanada (savory stuffed pastry), and halo halo (shaved ice dessert).
What's your favorite Filipino recipe / dish to make?
Bren: It changes depending on my mood, but lately I've been loving cooking tortang talong (eggplant omelet). In fact, I just gave two tortang talong cooking classes at the PAO Arts Center.
On staying in touch...
Do you have any upcoming shows / events?
Bren: I had an exhibit entitled "Kulap" about my immigration experience at the PAO Arts Center in Boston. PRI's "The World" on NPR just covered it. I hope to exhibit "Kulap" next at the Daly City Museum. And I have a current group exhibit at the Boston Children's Museum.
How can people stay in touch?
Bren: Website / Facebook / Instagram / Twitter
We’re always looking for BOSFilipinos blog writers / subjects! If you’d like to contribute or have a suggestions, feel free to send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.