Noted US-based Pinoy sculptor Paul Balan stays true to his Paete roots

LOS ANGELES - Paul Cainto Balan, who is from Paete, Laguna, and Chicago, has distinguished himself as the best designer of the new National Humanities Medal, minted in brass and finished in polished gold plate depicting Lady Liberty, which was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency created in 1965. It supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation.

On July 27 at the White House, President Barack Obama bestowed the newly-crafted medals on nine individuals and one organization for outstanding achievements in history, cultural studies, filmmaking, cultural commentary, and historic preservation. The Balan family witnessed the annual White House ceremony.

In coming up with the new design for the National Humanities Medal, Laguna-born Paul Balan took inspiration from Lady Liberty. Photo courtesy of Humanities Medal Design
"I was nervous," the artist told Philippine News, "but excited to be in the company of the U.S. president and the honorees. They're not ordinary people."

Some 131 online entries (including two from Balan) were submitted March last year in the national medal design competition. Three judges narrowed the field and the NEH acting chairman Carole M. Watson picked a winner, who works as "mailroom delivery associate," but a painter and a sculptor during his off hours.

"I cried when I won," said the native of Paete, a town known for its sculptors, painters, musicians and poets. "Then I praised God for all the blessings that have come our way. The prize for the new design is $3,000. Lady Liberty replaces the previous medal designed in 1995.

The winning artist described the Lady Liberty medal: "She is symbolic of freedom as well as our long held values of generosity and compassion. The diadem worn by Lady Liberty contains 13 spikes representative of the original 13 colonies. In her right arm she is depicted cradling a sheaf of wheat which symbolizes prosperity to be shared with all of mankind. The quill that she holds in her right hand symbolizes knowledge which is chronicled in the open journal displayed on her lap. To her right is a dove which is the messenger of peace; the strand of wheat in its beak a symbol of gratitude. In her left hand, Lady Liberty is depicted clutching a lamp that represents the light of wisdom."

One of the judges called it "an absolutely beautiful design that is well thought out, composed and stylish."


The United States Mint considers artists an indispensable part of the coin and medal production team. In 2003, the company developed a pool of talented and diverse American artists called the Artistic Infusion Program. In 2010, the U.S. Mint accepted Balan in its program as one of the 19 artists who will help design coins and commemorative medals.

"As an associate designer of the Artistic program," Balan said, "I will design coins and medals for consideration for minting and production. I already designed two congressional medals honoring Native American 'code talkers' and one side of a coin for the U.S. Marshals Service's 225th anniversary."

The artists receive $2,500 for each design and another $5,000 if the Treasury Dept. uses their design for a coin or medal, according to Mint spokesperson Mike White.

Cash prizes could be baffling for someone who said he left the Philippines with $5 given by his wife's grandmother.

Paete native draws inspiration from the land and folklore he heard as a child. Photo by Neil Reyes/Philippine News

A descendant of Pablo Bague, one of Paete's master sculptors, Paul Cainto Balan's parents crafted wood furniture and chess sets for a living. Balan began drawing at a young age, inspired by the land and folklore he often heard as a child. He said they didn't have art books when he was growing up.

Because he was fascinated with art in Catholic churches, he said he copied images from his grandmother's stampitas, drew with a ballpoint pen and made watercolor paint from coffee grounds. While his friends drew superheroes, he sketched saints, he noted.

At 17, he designed all of the stained glass windows at St. James Apostle Parish in Paete. Many of his religious works, ranging from murals to stained glass, can be seen at various churches in the Philippines. He also designed reredos (screen or wall decoration behind an altar) at Holy Name of Jesus, Most Holy Redeemer, and Holy Cross Parishes. His commissioned works include oil on canvas murals of Stigmatization of St. Francis, Franciscan Seminary (5' x 7'); and Blessed Trinity, Philippine Independence Church (48' x 8').

While a student of Fine Arts at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, he was an active participant in the Philippine art scene. He entered numerous competitions, including the Annual Metro Bank's Young Painters and the Art Association of the Philippines, where his pieces were among the finalists and named juror's choice.

Paul and Marra Balan married in 2000. In 2001, he followed his wife who had immigrated to Chicago earlier, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2005. The couple works for CDW, a Fortune 500 company and a leading provider of integrated information technology solutions in the United States and Canada. They have two children: Micailla, 5, and Paolo, 3.


Balan continues to produce a wide range of pieces.

"Thematically," he said, "I remain true to my roots: faith, nature and my Filipino heritage; however, I have also enhanced and expanded my scope to include my experiences in the United States and environmental differences like the four seasons."

In late 2004, he began experimenting with three dimensional art and has since completed three bronze sculptures: Wind, Water, and Pag-Asa (Hope). In 2008, Paul focused his time completing multiple private commissions. His most notable work during this time was his reredo design and painting of San Lorenzo Ruiz for the Prince of Peace Parish in Lake Villa, Ill.

The following year he was recognized in three juried competitions in Illinois. He received an Award of Merit from Recent Works: The 29th Annual Juried Exhibition for Lake County Artists (Grayslake, Oct.) which featured 53 artists chosen from 234 entries. He was a finalist at the 33rd Beverly Art Competitions and Exhibitions (Chicago, Nov.).

He was also one of the 36 finalists at the Postcard Art Competition and Exhibitions (PACE) sponsored by the Lake County Discovery Museum (Wauconda, Ill.). PACE is an international exhibition that showcases the 36 original designs selected from 443 entries submitted from the United States, Canada, Japan and China.

"During the 111th Philippines Independence Day Celebration in Milwaukee, I unveiled my Lupang Hinirang Series, the first ever visual interpretation of the Philippine national anthem, 'Lupang Hinirang.' The series consists of ten 24' x 18' pen and ink compositions inspired by the lyrics of the national anthem. Each composition is detailed with symbolic representations of the Filipino journey as a nation and as individuals, highlights Filipino virtues and captures Filipino struggles and triumphs with historical accuracy." According to Balan, the series took nearly four years to complete as he reflected and rediscovered what it means to be Filipino.

To read more about Paul Cainto Balan and his wide range of work, art exhibits, juried shows at Philippine events, and accolades from government and private establishments, as well as profiles in local publications and news features, visit — Philippine News


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