WASHINGTON — Bren Bataclan watched from behind a tree as a young couple approached the fountain and studied a small square object leaning against the base of the monument. From his hiding spot, he could see the woman reach down with empty hands, then stand back up clasping a canvas. The duo held a brief conference, their words too faint for Bataclan to hear. Finally, they reached an agreement that pleased him: The woman walked off with the artwork, grinning broadly.
The painting was Bataclan's eighth giveaway of the day and the 114th since he set out this summer on a cross-country expedition supporting his SmileyB project. More important, with this canvas, he released two more smiles into the world.
"I like to help others, and in my own small way, I'm doing that," the 44-year-old Boston-based artist said last month. "When I'm leaving paintings around, for 90 percent of the people, it's an enhancement to their day. For the other 10 percent, it's an intense, more direct easing of pain."
Bataclan arrived in Washington July 20, stop No. 39 on his 50-state tour that marked the 10-year anniversary of his creative endeavor. His mission: Deposit art around the country with the return promise that the recipient will crack a smile more often. In the off-chance that the image of a whimsical worm or a cuddlesome panda doesn't turn that frown upside down, he attaches a note to each 8-by-10-inch canvas that reads, "This painting is yours if you agree to smile at random people more often."
"I asked her, 'Will you legitimately smile more often at people,' David Fiedler, the fountain finder from Austin, Texas, said he asked his companion, Alyssa Kahn. "And she said yes."
After ticking off Maryland and Virginia, Bataclan embarked on a marathon drive along a route that is coincidentally shaped like a crooked smile (trace West Virginia, Kentucky, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming). He then backtracked to his 48th state (Iowa). After a short respite in California, he reached New Mexico last weekend and on Tuesday he crossed off the last square on the map, Oklahoma.
SmileyB originated in a city that often knits its brows and grimaces. Bataclan, who was born in the sunny Philippines and grew up in neighborly San Francisco, attended graduate school in Ohio, where he sampled the Midwest's special blend of conviviality and chumminess. When he moved to Boston, he noticed a chill in the air that was unrelated to the winter temperature. In 2003, unemployed and antsy, he started depositing his anime-inflected artwork around the city — on park benches, outside banks, inside post offices and at the airport. He hoped his works would thaw the faces of Bostonians.
On a dreary February day in 2004, his art helped a woman in pink sunglasses who, in turn, assisted him in discovering his true calling. The mystery individual was from Greece and had just completed her first chemotherapy treatment in Boston when she stumbled upon his artwork. She later contacted him (he puts his website on each note), thanking him for the jolt of hope on an otherwise bleak occasion. (Bataclan has received numerous emails from people sharing their tragic situations and explaining how his artwork has changed their attitude toward life.)
"This is my ministry," said Bataclan, who supports himself as a professional artist and funded his tour through Kickstarter. "Even without money, I will give away one or five paintings a month. She started me doing this indefinitely."
Bataclan's strategy is to drop and run. No waiting around, watching and wondering whether the art will find a caring custodian or will end up wet, cold and alone. He scouts for areas with heavy foot traffic and benches — all the better to exhibit the art. If he can't locate an elevated platform, he will rest the piece on a step or the ground.
"After 10 years, I'm happy just leaving it," he said. "I'm at peace knowing they will find a home."
In Washington, Bataclan started at the National Mall, which is rife with benches and dense with feet. He set up his bait: a cherry-red worm with yellow antennae and a beatific smile that could melt a butterfly's heart.
A pedestrian in a black shirt and backpack eyeballed the painting, then looked back over his shoulder to make sure that, yes, a worm was beaming at him.
"Adults are more tied into product placement and think nothing is free," said Bataclan, who has observed several distinct sociological behaviors over the years.
Another man stopped and snapped a picture of the canvas.
After a few more minutes, a trio of Florida coed-types appeared. Nicole Reed broke from her pack of friends to snag the artwork.
The clock was inching toward dinnertime, and Bataclan still had to tackle Virginia before moving on to West Virginia the next day. On his way to the car, he revisited the drop spots in Bethesda, Md., checking on the status of the art. All but one of the benches was empty.
"So there is only one unloved one," he said, looking over at the painting languishing by the Dunkin' Donuts.
Later that evening, in a hotel room in Herndon, Va., Bataclan received an email that opened with, "We were wandering around downtown Bethesda and sat down on the bench in front of Dunkin Donuts," and ended with, "The painting has found a new home!"
The couple included a photo of themselves holding up a painting of a yellow worm and smiling from ear to ear.