Earlier this year, artist Nina Levy garnered a lot of Internet attention when media outlets began reporting on her napkin art. Levy sent her kids off to school each day with lunches containing miniature depictions of Disney characters and dragons and the like on their napkins. But perhaps it’s unfair that children should be the only ones who get to enjoy napkin art designed just for them.
Any little ones getting an eyeful of John Matta’s napkin art are in for a bumpy ride. Matta’s napkins, which he collects on the fittingly titled website Matta Napkin, are portals into a bizarre world of zombie dietitians, unicorn gyros, and other stuff nobody wants to explain to their kids. He posts a new one on the site every day, except when he has guests like Maria Bamford, Merrill Markoe, and Nia Vardalos post in his stead. In doing so, he has reclaimed the napkin as an artistic medium for adults.
The ideas on display in Matta’s napkins are custom-made for a Twitter world. Rather than the three-panel option, these etchings wring as much as possible out of one. The drawings have an economical simplicity, while the words explaining them are often tweet-size missives that would probably have a few characters to spare. Co.Create spoke to the artist recently about how he got into the napkin hustle, and why napkins are an ideal medium.
Co.Create: So who are you?
John Matta: I’m a writer who has worked on a bunch of TV shows. I’ve always wanted to draw, but, for some reason, it never dawned on me that I could just start. It’s very intimidating to see the work of people I love like Chris Ware, Lisa Hanawalt, Renee French, and Sergio Aragonés . . . those folks are tremendous.
What made you decide to start this project?
Two years ago I was eating at a Subway and watching a mother demand that the guy behind the counter give her free meat samples. She wanted to let her little boy taste them before ordering. If the child didn’t like the meat, he’d spit it out on the counter. If he liked the meat, he’d also spit it out on the counter, accompanied by an approving grunt.
It was the most wonderful thing I’d ever witnessed. I felt I had to document the event so I drew it on a napkin. Then I started drawing more stuff on napkins. I kept showing them to my wife and finally she said, "You should really show these to other people besides me." So I set up a blog and began posting them.
What is it about napkins?
It was the only thing available when I saw the worst mother on the planet. Plus, it drives me nuts when I see people grab a massive handful and then leave them on the table. Why waste such perfect tiny canvases?
Is minimalism part of your artistic philosophy?
I like the term minimalism! That’s better than the truth, which is: I find it difficult to draw noses, hands, feet, ears, hair. etc. Therefore, I have to keep it simple.
The fact of their being on a napkin suggests that these drawings were dashed off. Do they take long to make?
It really matters where I’m eating. Arby’s pretty much leaves you alone, but some of the other places want to keep you moving. When I draw at home it takes a little longer because the napkins rip. I don’t know what it is, but napkins are like bad Mexican food . . . they just don’t travel well.