CANVAS, fittingly, began with one story.
Back in college in the late 1980s, I had seen an animated short film, The Man Who Planted Trees which was based on a short ecofable by a French writer, Jean Giono. The movie’s title was also its entire premise: one solitary man simply decides to plant one hundred acorns each day in a barren and forgotten section of Provence in France, over a span of 50 years. In the process, his life’s devotion transforms the landscape and “creates a masterpiece truly worthy of God.”
The US adaptation became a bestseller, and the movie won the Academy Award in 1988.
The Man Who Planted Trees spoke of the power of an individual to change the world. It made an impact on me, and I dreamt of one day publishing an adaptation for the Philippines. So I filed the idea as something for my bucket list.
In 1999, I began inquiring about securing the rights to adapt and publish Giono’s tale. To my pleasant astonishment, Jim Schley, then the editor in chief of Chelsea Green Publishing which had published The Man Who Planted Trees informed me that
Legend has it that no one -- no person, and no company or institution – "owns” the copyright to this story. Giono believed that he had given the rights to the world, granting anyone the opportunity to translate or reproduce his tale. While the French publisher Gallimard has at times challenged those who publish the story, so far they have not succeeded in intimidating many people who have contributed to the distribution of the story.
I hope that this response is useful to you, and I wish you well in your efforts to make the story more widely known in your country.
Additional internet research gave me reassurance. I found this translation of a letter that Jean Giono had written to a certain Mr. Valdeyron, the Waters and Forests Manager of Digne, back in 1957:
I am sorry to disappoint you, but Elzeard Bouffier is a fictional character. The objective was to develop the love of trees, or more precisely, develop the love for planting trees (this has always been one of my cherished ideas). Judging by the results, the objective has been attained by this imaginary character.
The text that you have read in Trees and Life has been translated in Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, English, German, Russian, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, Spanish, Italian, Yiddish, Polish. I have given all reproduction rights for free.
An American came to see me recently to ask for the authorization to make 100,000 copies of the text, in order to distribute them for free in America (of course, I accepted). The University of Zagreb has translated the text in Serbo-Croatian. It is one of the texts that I am most proud of. The texts do not bring me even a dime, and this is why it accomplishes the reason for which it is written.
It took me a few more years to raise the funds necessary for this small project, until sometime in 2004, I hired a young children’s book writer, Augie Rivera, to work on the adaptation, and later convinced a relatively unknown 24-year old artist named Romeo Forbes to create the artworks that would bring the book to life.
In 2005, I was finally able to cross the book off my bucket list. Both as a book and as an exhibition of the paintings, Elias and His Trees was as a critical and commercial success. All the artworks sold out, as did a good chunk of the limited first edition hardbound copies. Beyond our expectations, the book was also selected as a finalist in the National Book Awards the following year.
Elias and His Trees was also CANVAS’ coming out party, so we now regard its launch on June 13, 2005, as the official date of CANVAS’ birth.
Elias and His Trees laid the groundwork for everything else that followed for CANVAS over the next ten years. Its success garnered attention and some measure of respect that opened doors - from working with some of the most highly coveted artists and talented writers, to our foray into publicly accessible art, to building an international friendship park in Palawan, to organizing annual TEDx conferences, and to our children’s literacy initiatives.
Our origin and growth over the past 10 years, to me, demonstrates the power of a story and of generosity, to create ripples that lead to unexpected outcomes.
Surely, Jean Giono could not have imagined that his selfless sharing of a fictional tale about an old man planting trees in wartime France to the creative commons would give birth to a small nonprofit that would now be giving away tens of thousands of books to poor children in the Philippines every year.
This belief in a ripple effect, and Jean Giono’s example, are the reasons why we have always made our stories freely downloadable on our website, and why we choose to give our books to children in poor and disadvantaged communities throughout the Philippines. They are the reasons why we strive to make Philippine art more accessible through our various public art initiatives.
From one seed, an entire forest. From one story, a generation of readers. We cling to the hope and possibility that somewhere down the line, one of the books that we publish, one of the artworks that we show, or one of ideas that we share, will trigger the imagination of one child who will then be moved to change the world for the better.