Filipino designs medals handed out by Obama

By Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune reporter

Posted at Jul 31 2014 01:58 PM | Updated as of Aug 01 2014 07:22 PM

Artist Paul Balan, originally from Paete in the Philippines, was chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to design the new National Humanities Medal. Photo by Jessica Tezak, Tribune

WASHINGTON — Filipino immigrant Paul Balan came to Chicago for love, leaving behind his country, family members and a growing reputation as an artist.

He'd married in the Philippines in 2000 and wanted to stay. But his Filipino wife, who had already settled in the U.S., persuaded him to make the 8,000-mile leap of faith. She said they'd go back to the Philippines if things didn't work out.

He found a entry-level job in a suburban office and, in fits and starts, returned to drawing, painting and sculpting.

On Saturday, he begins another journey. He leaves for a White House ceremony Monday when President Barack Obama gives the National Humanities Medal to 10 people.

Balan designed the gold-plated medal that shows Lady Liberty in a diadem and flowing dress. The pre-Raphaelite image has her surrounded by a sheath of wheat, a dove and a lamp.

Balan won a $3,000 prize in a design competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities that attracted 131 entries, including two from Balan.

It's a career high for the father of two from suburban Round Lake. He wept when he won.

Balan is anxious about his White House ceremony. "I am excited at the same time, but I am also nervous," he said. "My English is not that good, and different personalities, like the presidents and the recipients, are not ordinary people."

One recipient is Northwestern University professor Darlene Clark Hine, a historian who has chronicled the lives of African-American women. And at the same ceremony, the president will bestow the National Medal of Arts, whose recipients will include Chicago arts patron Joan Harris.

Balan grew up in Paete, a community of woodworkers and artists. He never knew his maternal great-grandfather, sculptor Pablo Bague. His parents crafted wood furniture and chess sets for a living.

While growing up, he said, art books weren't a fixture in the family home. He admired the art in Catholic churches, copied images from his grandmother's holy cards and sized up greats such as Michelangelo in an encyclopedia.

He drew with a ballpoint pen and made watercolor paint from coffee grounds. He fabricated his canvasses by stretching denim onto a wooden frame and rendering it white with household paint.

While childhood friends drew superheroes, he sketched saints. He painted religious murals and began designing stained glass for churches.

Balan spent three years in art school, then dropped out and supported himself selling his paintings. He said he had $5 in his pocket when he flew to Chicago. "My wife's grandmother handed it to me," he said. "That's the only money I had."

For months, his wife, Marra, was the breadwinner.

Big-city life, blizzards and even pizza were a shock. Raised in the tropics, he'd never seen snow. He didn't drive at first. He missed kare-kare stew, so he walked to distant grocers for the ingredients.

He ignored a sketchbook his wife bought him because he felt bad that he was ignoring a cultural dictate that husbands supported their wives, not vice versa.

After a stint as a waiter, he found a job in 2001 with his wife's employer, CDW, a Fortune 500 firm in Vernon Hills that provides information technology services. Most recently, he worked in the mailroom.

Only after earning a steady paycheck did he feel comfortable buying art supplies, he said. Balan, who became a citizen in 2005, has hit his stride, with his work winning juried competitions.

One achievement was a visual depiction of the Filipino national anthem in black ink. It's sketched on 10 18-by-24-inch panels. Other works appear in churches and private homes.

In 2010, the U.S. Mint accepted Balan in its Artistic Infusion Program as one of 19 artists who help design coins and commemorative medals.

For the Mint, he has designed two congressional medals honoring Native American "code talkers" and one side of a coin for the U.S. Marshals Service's 225th anniversary.

He receives $2,500 for each design assignment and another $5,000 if the Treasury Department uses his design for a coin or medal, Mint spokesman Mike White said.

His successes let him take a sabbatical from the mailroom last year to pursue art. He'll return in August, said Max Reed, a company vice president who has encouraged Balan to pursue his passion.

"It's a reminder that there is talent in all of us," Reed said, "and if you invest in talent and individuals, extraordinary things like this are bound to happen."

He and his wife, a CDW customer relations representative, have children ages 5 and 3.

She said the couple are grateful for how things have turned out. "We've been thanking the Lord for the blessings we've had," she said. "His hard work has finally paid off."

This article was originally published on Chicago Tribune last July 26, 2014. Reprinted with permission from Chicago Tribune.

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