Nashville Artist Tears and Twists Coffee Shop Napkins Into Masterpieces

Paper napkins come to restaurants by the case, thousands of cheap one- or two-ply folded squares or rectangles. They’re used for sopping up spills and wiping off hands. They’re nothing special.

But they can be.

Brian Parker tears them into pieces, twists them between his fingers. It’s not unlike what a bored kid might do while mom and dad are talking, except the shapes that emerge are intricate recreations of great masterworks of art.

Recreations of 'American Gothic,' 'The Scream' and 'Girl With a Pearl Earring,' made from napkins, spoons and sugar packets. Credit: Brian Parker

Recreations of ‘American Gothic,’ ‘The Scream’ and ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring,’ made from napkins, spoons and sugar packets. Credit: Brian Parker

Parker says his personal favorite is “American Gothic,” in part because he made it with so little: less than one napkin, two spoons, one fork. “It says what I want to say about the art.”

It all started with a trip to Ugly Mugs in East Nashville about a year ago. Parker and his husband, Barry, drank some coffee, ate bagels, and kept hanging out for a while. Parker, who describes himself as having “busy fingers” that can’t keep still, says he was just fiddling with things when he noticed an angel had “just sort of appeared” on the table.

The angel that inspired Parker's napkin art isn't as elaborate or precise as the ones that have followed, but it wasn't something he set out to make, either. Credit: Brian Parker

The angel that inspired Parker’s napkin art isn’t as elaborate or precise as the ones that have followed, but it wasn’t something he set out to make, either. Credit: Brian Parker

“I took a picture of it,” Parker says, “and posted it to Facebook (as every good Facebooker does). Some people liked it and every Sunday since, with few exceptions, Barry and I have come here and made napkin art.”

Parker explains he has has a few rules:

1. No scissors

2. No glue

3. Only rip and fold

Of course, the rules can be bent a little. Parker admits he’ll sometimes use honey as a glue. It doesn’t take much, just a little drop on a spoon, applied with a sugar packet rolled up into a sort of make-do toothpick.

The choice of table is important, too. It definitely should not too close to the door. When the medium in question is little bits of flimsy paper, all it takes is one gust of wind or a person walking by too fast to blow everything all over.

Parker says he doesn’t really plan ahead of time, he just makes whatever image pops in his mind once he gets to the coffeeshop. But once in a while he gets in the mood to make something so elaborate, he has to take the napkins home. That’s where he made his version of “The Last Supper,” which took nine hours to complete.

'The Last Supper' is one of Parker's most ambitious pieces to date. Credit: Brian Parker

‘The Last Supper’ is one of Parker’s most ambitious pieces to date. Credit: Brian Parker

That one took more than the normal customer’s allotment of napkins, too. But Jarrod Delozier isn’t bothered. The owner of Ugly Mugs jokes that he’d be willing to buy Parker his own stock of napkins. Delozier says he’d love to make the art a permanent part of the decor, and has asked Parker to consider framing some of them. The answer? No, because there’s one more rule.

4. Throw it all away.

When Parker’s happy with an image, he snaps a photo and then his creation heads to the recycling bin.

Parker poses with a simple butterfly he made as a quick example of his methods. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Parker poses with a simple butterfly he made as a quick example of his methods. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Parker smiles broadly as he thinks about that part, saying he wipes the paper away without a second thought. Usually it goes in the trash, although sometimes he’ll stuff the pieces in his pocket if he thinks he might want to reuse them. He compares it to the sand sculptures he’d make at the beach as a kid, and how half the fun was seeing the waves wash them away.

Of course, the art remains in those photos Parker takes. Each time, he posts the picture to Facebook. His friend, Virginia Evans, says she always shares them. She’s not the only one.

“Everybody says oh my gosh this is beautiful and then they friend him because they want to get a live feed.”

The photos have garnered so much attention online that he’s publishing a book, complete with designs at the front and back: photos of napkins, this time twisted and folded into a geometric pattern of repeating, identical, 1-ply paper flourishes.

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