Napkin rings true

Marty Coleman finds a new way to inspire lunchtime discussion — thought-provoking cartoons captured on napkins.



"Napkin Dad" Marty Coleman at DoubleShot Coffee Company, which hosted an exhibition of his work in 2009. Left, examples of the hand-drawn napkins Coleman included in his daughters' lunches and now shares at his blog, The Napkin Dad Daily.

Typically, the parent is working to inspire the teenager. But sometimes the teenager is the one who ends up providing the necessary inspiration to the parent, and just when he or she needs it most.

About 12 years ago, Marty Coleman was an out-of-work interactive designer spending most of his time raising his three daughters, Chelsea, Connie and Rebekah. Each morning, he drew thought-provoking cartoons on the napkins he placed in each daughter’s lunch.

“I was looking for a really easy and effective way to tell them I love them and communicate with them,” he says. “It wasn’t me lecturing to them; it was me giving them an idea and letting them run with it.”

Knowing that each day his only outlet for artistic creativity was being thrown away at the end of the meal depressed Coleman, he says.

So he was surprised when, the following Father’s Day, his children called and took him on a scavenger hunt leading to presents. Connie directed her father to a drawer full of the napkins he had created during the school year.

Renewed by their devotion to the drawings, Coleman drew his art on napkins for the girls’ lunches for the next four years, until the last child graduated from high school.

“It was exciting to find the individually drawn napkin each day in my lunch,” says daughter Chelsea, now 24 and living in Seattle, where she is pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter. “What a fun experience to be included daily in a conversation about something other than gossip and drama and homework.

“That’s what it was; it was like I felt not only loved and special but included in the adult world of ideas.

“The daily drawings and quotations were a no-pressure way to explore my own opinions and beliefs in a world of way too much pressure all around.”

Marty's desire was to encourage his daughters to think about underlying ideas and principles of life. An unexpected and powerful consequence was that the napkins started dialogues about important, relevant topics with the other students with whom his daughters ate lunch every day. His napkins, which featured sayings such as “A brain is only as good as its weakest link,” sparked discussions about racism, individuality, art, education, peer pressure and love, to name just a few topics.

“I think my dad’s artistic expressions helped us form a diverse worldview,” Chelsea says. “He taught us to focus on the beauty and opportunity all around us.

“When so many other influences, in school, church, etc., were teaching me to see the world in black and white, he was reinforcing another, more colorful message: When we are open to new ideas and ways of seeing, the possibilities for growth are endless.

“Being surrounded by art was, in some ways, an escape from the fear that to become an adult was to become rigid and never grow again. My dad gave me hope that adults can remain flexible and passionate about life.”

Marty now focuses his art in several directions. He runs a blog, The Napkin Dad Daily (www.napkindad.com), where he uploads a new napkin drawing every day. On Saturdays, he uploads a “vintage” napkin, he says, from his stash of drawings for his daughters. He also sells mugs, greeting cards, T-shirts and other items on the site. In addition, Marty showcased his portfolio of photo collages at the Chrysalis Salon and Spa in Tulsa during October and November.

“My photo collage work is just as important to me as any other part of my work,” he says.

His story also made him a finalist in the Mutual of Omaha’s “Aha! Moment” campaign to find inspiring stories to use in a 2011 marketing campaign.

Now, Marty is working to make his art into a viable business, including creating a new book based on the napkin drawings.

“I want to build my art into something sustainable,” he says. “Because if it’s not sustainable, then I’m not really helping anyone.”

Again, his children just might prove to be the inspiration he needs.

“I’m so excited for him and his career,” Chelsea says. “I think, because his work is so inspirational to so many people, he’ll go far. I see him publishing books, speaking at events and showing his photo work and napkin art in galleries. He has a way of getting people to listen to new ideas and see the world a new way.”

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