Paul Cainto Balan (4th from right) with family and friends.
Paul Cainto Balan (4th from right) with family and friends.

ROUND LAKE, Illinois – Paul Cainto Balan was reluctant to come to America because he did not want to leave his fledging art business in Paete, Laguna, about 65 miles south of Manila.

But his wife, Marra (nee Vitor), his sweetheart and a native of Sta. Cruz, Laguna, prevailed upon him to leave Paete and try his luck in a distant land. That was 14 years ago. 

Last July 28, Balan was recognized as an outstanding artist when President Obama held a medal — the National Humanities Medal – the Laguna native had designed. The President conferred the medal on 10 outstanding Americans at a ceremony held in the White House.

“Never in my wildest imagination that I would be invited to the White House to witness a ceremony that would feature my work. I only have to thank God and my wife for encouraging me to come to America,” a teary-eyed Balan exclaimed while he was interviewed by this reporter and Globalink staff Marlon L. Pecson — in his house at Chicago’s north suburb of Round Lake, Illinois.

Balan, 41, a native of Pakil, Laguna, designed the gold-plated medal  showing Lady Liberty in a diadem and flowing dress. The pre-Raphaelite image shows she is surrounded by a sheath of wheat, a dove and a lamp.

Balan, now an American citizen, won the top $3,000 prize in a design competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The contest attracted 131 entries. Balan submitted two entries.

After topping the design competition, his wife told him, “See, I told you never to quit.”

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

For the U.S. Mint, he designed two congressional medals honoring Native American “code talkers” and one side of a coin commemorating  the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Marshals Service.

He receives $2,500 for each design assignment, and he would receive  $5,000 more if the Treasury Department uses his design for a coin or medal (both sides of the coin), U.S. Mint spokesman Mike White was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as saying.

Last year, Balan took a sabbatical from his mailroom work at CDW at Vernon Hills, Illinois because the 14-year contract offered to him by the U.S. Mint to design coins or medals was a job offer he could not refuse. But recently, he gave up his job at CDW, said Marra, who also works at CDW as customer relations service employee. 

There were lots of hugging, kissing and well wishing when he left his job after 14 years, Balan said. A co-employee told him his accomplishments brought honors to Filipinos.

Balan is grateful to his employer whose vice president, Max Reed, encouraged him to pursue his passion for the arts. “I heard my CEO shed a tear when I won the design of the National Endowment for the Humanities medal.”

Balan grew up in Paete, which is noted for its woodcarvings and artists. His maternal great-grandfather, Pablo Bague, was a sculptor. His parents crafted wood furniture and chess sets.

While growing up, Balan copied images of his grandmother’s stampeta (prayer cards) and other images from encyclopedia. He used ballpoint pen in his drawings and grounded-coffee liquid as his watercolor in painting. He stretched denim into a wooden frame and rendered it white with household paint he bought in Manila. 

To support himself, he painted religious murals and designed stained glasses for churches. He attended commercial arts classes at the University of Sto. Tomas for two years but failed to get a diploma because he did not take ROTC and PE classes.

When he flew to Chicago in 2000, his wife’s grandmother gave him a $5. “That’s the only money I had.” he said. 

In Chicago, his wife, Marra, was the provider for the family for several months, and he felt bad about it. This discouraged him to resume his painting career because there is no sure income.

He first worked as a waiter and found an entry-level job with his wife’s employer, CDW, in 2001. He later became a mailroom employee at CDW.

When he got a regular paycheck, Balan started buying art instruments and supplies so he could do painting and sculpting when he was off-duty. He started painting jobs for churches and private homes, and this  augmented his income. When he sculpted the San Lorenzo Ruiz statute measuring three feet by two feet in 2009, he was paid $7,000. When he sculpted a Cross, five feet by seven feet, he donated it to a church for free.