“After 10 years, I’m happy just leaving it,” he said. “I’m at peace knowing they will find a home.”
At the Mall
In Washington, Bataclan started at the Mall, which is rife with benches and dense with feet. From his tote bag, he pulled out a canvas, a sheet of white paper with the “instructions” and a roll of tape. 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, this one dressed in orange plaid shorts, stopped and snapped a picture of the canvas. “If my son were here,” said Jalla Haddad of Oregon, “I would be asking him, ‘Where do you want to put it?’ ” However, his son was back home, and Haddad was traveling by motorcycle and camping out for five weeks. There was no room on his bike for a happy bug.
After a few more minutes, a trio of coed-types appeared. Nicole Reed broke from her pack of friends to snag the artwork.
“I was intrigued because of the bright colors, and then I read the note,” said Reed, who had driven up from Gainesville, Fla., that morning. “He’s coming to Gator Nation.”
Bataclan next set up two paintings on a bench near the National Museum of Natural History. The pair received a few sniffs but no takers. Moving closer to the crowds, he placed a canvas among the flowing sea of legs on the museum’s staircase. A member of a large group wearing matching reunion T-shirts knocked the canvas with her foot. It nearly toppled over.
“They’re on steps, not a bench,” he said. “That’s the risk I’ve taken.”
Bataclan switched to the right side of the stairs, away from Team Reunion. Within seconds, Trey Wilhoite of Tysons Corner grabbed the piece. When asked about his intentions for the art, he said that he and his three friends were going to transport the painting to another location. They were considering the steps of the Capitol or the National Air and Space Museum.
“You have to keep spreading the message to random people,” he said.
Maryland and Virginia
After leaving behind six paintings at the Mall, Bataclan slated the remaining nine for Dupont Circle. Pedestrians picked up the paintings as quickly as squirrels popping bird seed. Among the recipients: a birthday girl turning 24, a family visiting from Pittsburgh (one for the 7-year-old daughter, one for the “I want what she has” 3-year-old son) and a student with the Fund for American Studies.
“I definitely can keep this promise,” said Gaby Broque, the student. “I already smile a lot.”
With the D.C. portion now complete, Bataclan set his compass for Bethesda. He sprinkled the pieces around downtown, leaving a few by the Metro station, another in front of a Chipotle, many on benches outside the shops and restaurants. Minutes after depositing the last canvas in Maryland, he caught sight of 9-year-old Patrick O’Donnell running in circles as he hoisted the painting and shouted, “It’s mine, it’s mine.” His mother, Kristin, gently reminded her youngest son that he had to smile at “random people and not your mother.”
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, 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, Bataclan received an e-mail 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. They were holding up a painting of a yellow worm, and were smiling from ear to ear.