Dining With Denise Neil

Customers launch spontaneous napkin art installation at this Wichita cafe

It was never planned, never organized, and it’s almost never even spoken about.

But it’s become a pretty big deal at Wichita’s Beautiful Day Cafe — and a project whose birth was as organic as the soups, salads and sandwiches on the cafe’s menu.

If you’ve ever dined at the restaurant, which opened four years ago at 2516 E. Central, you’ve probably noticed that under the plexiglass toppers on each table are dozens of square cocktail-sized napkins covered with all manners of artwork, some of it scratched out by children, some of it clearly labored over by professionals.

The “napkin art,” as owner Charolett Knapic and her general manager Lincoln Scott call it, has become a contagious habit among the cafe’s customers, and over the four years it’s been open, diners have created hundreds and hundreds of tiny masterpieces.

Star Wars’ Chewbacca is featured on one recently added piece of napkin art at Beautiful Day Cafe. Denise Neil The WIchita Eagle

Visit the cafe today and you’ll spot several efforts worth framing: a recently completed red-pen portrait of Star Wars’ Chewbacca proclaiming “May the 4th Be With You.” A landscape, done in blue ballpoint, of a tree-lined lake in Alaska. A cartoon drawing of a kitten basking in the sun that says “I love you. Have a beautiful day.” Even a couple of quick sketches by well known Wichita Eagle cartoonist Richard Crowson.

The napkins started appearing shortly after the cafe opened, Scott said. The cafe had asked artist Nanetta Maria to create little coloring pages featuring vegetables and flowers, and they put out colored pencils so that customers could occupy themselves while they waited.

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Lincoln Scott, general manager at Beautiful Day Cafe, has become the manager of a spontaneous, ongoing napkin art project by the cafe’s customers. Denise Neil The Wichita Eagle

For a while, people colored on the coloring pages. Then, suddenly, they moved on to napkins, which are kept in little napkin holders on each of the cafe’s nine tables. Some people would scrawl little notes thanking the staff for their meals. Others would draw elaborate pictures. Some would sign their names or identify which far away town they were visiting from. Some wouldn’t.

A few of the artists slid their early napkin works under the glass for preservation. Then a few more did. Then more. Then more.

“Then we started noticing, ‘This is great art,’” Scott said. “People were really focused on what they were doing and giving it their best.”

One napkin artist refused to be hampered by the supposed squareness of his canvas. Denise Neil The Wichita Eagle

After a while, each table had napkin art three-layers deep, and the plexiglass was getting tilty. Scott removed all of the napkin contributions, stashing them in a box, and hoped the customers would start the project all over.

They did, though it took a while — and Scott putting a few of his favorites from the previous go-round back on display.

Now and then, the owners share some of the best napkin art on Facebook. Last year, to celebrate the cafe’s third birthday, Scott created a bulletin board covered with some of the best of the best.

The napkin art has become a known thing, he said, and he wonders if some people come in with the intention of contributing. Even the non-drawing public seems to love the spontaneous installation.

“I’ll see customers sitting at their table reading them all, and they’ll get up and go around to the different tables,” he said.

Now, he and Marie are talking about the possibility of creating a book featuring the best napkin art. It could serve as a coloring book, he said, or just as a little souvenir of the cafe.

One customer composed a brunch ditty on a napkin at Beautiful Day Cafe. Denise Neil The Wichita Eagle

One piece of napkin art it will definitely include is done in black ink and features four bars of original music. It’s a tiny composition, complete with lyrics, that the author titled “Napkin Canon.”

“I took it home and plunked it out on the piano,” Scott said. “And it’s actually a little tune.”

Denise Neil has covered restaurants and entertainment since 1997. Her Dining with Denise Facebook page is the go-to place for diners to get information about local restaurants. She’s a regular judge at local food competitions and speaks to groups all over Wichita about dining.