School has ended...and all too abruptly....for a high school senior whose dad went above and beyond to give her a smile with her lunch since first grade.

Steve Rogers napkin art

From the tine she was in elementary school, this Red Bank dad devoted a couple of hours at night to express his love for his child through napkin art...and to give her something to look forward to at lunch time.

Steve Rogers happens to be a very talented producer and director of a show titled 'Here's the Story' on PBS. More on that later. But, for now, here's HIS story:

"I started drawing on napkins for my daughter when she was in 1st grade.  Just after her mom and I separated.  My daughter decided that she didn't want to strictly live at her mom's place all week, that she wanted to split time evenly between the two of us.  It was also the height of the recession and I lost my job as the Director of the Emmy Awards because of the financial turmoil and some bad management decisions at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.  So now that I was home and preparing lunches for Willow each day I started penning simple things on her lunchbox napkins -- a smiley face, a sunrise, a flower.

Steve Roges napkin art

Willow was and is a very thoughtful child, meaning, she cared deeply about others and what they felt and thought, but also because she spent a lot of time as young kid inside of her mind.  To her credit, she never adjusted to the will of other kids who challenged her unique qualities, instead she found others who shared the same rich inner life as she.  But there were times that it wasn't easy.

Lunch time for a lot of quiet, contemplative children is a bit of a torture.  And there were years that Willow found it a difficult time.  One of her teachers once told me that Willow seemed a bit lost and lonely at lunch.  Any parent can understand why hearing that nearly brought me to tears.  No one ever wants to imagine their child feeling lost and lonely.
It was then that I started really making an effort to distract, entertain and enlighten her through the funny images I drew on her napkins.  That year she was really into word and picture puzzles, so I would create my own.  A lot of that early stuff was pretty surreal, simple line drawings of bowler hats with ladders on them leading up to the sun with a rabbit flying overhead.  Some were inside jokes that we shared.  Some were popular culture references, holiday themed stuff, comic strip and cartoon characters from movies we had recently seen.  And then as she got older I started to focus more on portraits of people that either she had an interest in or I did.  I also drew a lot of musical figures and political satire then as well, Bob Marley to Karl Marx.
Steve Rogers napkin art

Essentially, the content of the napkin drawings evolved with her and so did my ability to accurately capture an image on a napkin (or paper towel) using Sharpie markers only.  Eventually one of my daughter's teachers Danielle Gianelos saw the napkins and started sharing them on her social media and then urged me to do the same.  Before that, it was only Willow and her friends who saw them. And with the ability for my daughter to have and use her cell phone in school (a blessing and a curse), I started sharing each day's napkin drawing on Instagram (@napkin.gallery) and posting them with more detailed information about the subject.  She and her friends could then see the napkin and go find out who the person was and what their significance was/is.

I also developed an interesting group of fellow napkin artists on Instagram.  Yes, there are a lot of people out there that do the same thing as me, and they are amazing artists and as prolific as as they need to be, given 5 days a week of packed lunches.
Now that Willow is graduating from high school, we talked about the end of the series.  I joked with her that I would still draw them and send them with her to college, but she mercifully acknowledged, "no dad, it's okay, you don't have to."

Then on March 13th of this year, the series came to an end. With the quarantine stretching on, likely beyond the end of the 2020 school year, my work is done.  But we didn't know.  I certainly didn't know that the napkin drawing I did on March 13th would be my last that she would ever take to school.  The irony is that the subject of the last napkin drawing was an image of my mom when she was 17, the same age as my daughter.  It was her birthday, so I honored my mom in this way.  And really, it is perfectly fitting because she, she and my dad, but SHE really is the model for how I parent day-to-day, the need to creatively share an abundance of love and care to your child in any and every way possible.  She, my mom, would put notes and stickers in my lunchbox often, but more than that even, she made me and my father and my siblings healthy, satisfying lunches every single day without fail and then went to work as a public school teacher.  When I think of the metal and dedication she had to do all of that, drawing pictures on napkins hardly seems like anything at all.  So, it was nice that she was the last drawing in the series.

Steve Rogers napkin art Nana
After that, I found that I couldn't stop drawing.  I realized when the quarantine hit that I was drawing pictures for myself as much as I was for her every night.  I liked it.  It calmed me.  It made me feel like I was accomplishing something in a life where we always feel one stone, one step away from completing our latest project.  It is for me a meditation.  All the thinking about everything outside slows and stops and my focus becomes seeing the face revealing itself as I draw.  In life after Coronavirus it has become a particularly soothing experience.  I continue to draw about one a day and the subjects are fairly well thought out.  Well, the subjects have been literally thought out. They are all people and ideas that are very present in my mind, whether they are people who have had a peaceful affect on me (because that's what it's all about right now) or people who are presently affecting me, presently "with" me in isolation.  Most recently I drew a portrait of a friend of the family that died from Coronavirus, a mother of one of my daughter's elementary school friends.  I've known she and her husband for years, watched our kids grow up, and now she's gone, just gone. It's human nature I suppose but when someone close to you, close in age, etc. dies it tends to haunt you, or did me.  I found myself thinking about her a lot and that's when I decided to draw her.
So that's the story.  Ummm, let's see, I draw the majority of them on Viva papertowels.  The quality of them lends itself to being able to shade dark to light, which is what it's about with these portraits.  I have a bag of Sharpie markers that are in varying stages of ink life, which also allows me to make dark to light adjustments.  On any given napkin drawing I might use ten to twelve different Sharpies. There are certain recurring people in the series. I've done multiple portraits of Fred Rogers, The Beatles, specifically John, but all four them as well.  I try to draw as many strong female subjects as I can, Susan B Anthony, Greta Thunberg, Joan of Arc, Katherine Johnson.  Kermit the Frog has been in quite a few.  And Charlie Brown is always a go-to, but then isn't he for everyone, for everything."
Thank you for your amazing words, Steve. The love that you have for your daughter brings tears to my eyes. Not only are you a talented artist, but your writing is pretty incredible, too.
You can see more of Steve's napkin art on Instagram @napkin.gallery (under the name Moses Butterworth)
And, as if that isn't enough, you owe it to yourself to watch all episodes of Steve Roger's PBS Show on NJTV titled "Here's The Story". The newest episode debuts tomorrow, May 6th, titled The Green Amendment, featuring some young, adorable, and insightful Monmouth County students from The Outdoor School at the Voyagers' Community School. Watch a preview HERE and HERE.
You can catch up on past episodes of this Emmy-nominated TV show HERE.
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