The tradition of napkin art

Eye on KELOLAND

RAPID CITY, S.D. (KELO) — A math professor at the South Dakota School of Mines is teaching his daughters the importance of art through a little tradition that began with a squiggle on a napkin. 

In Eye on KELOLAND, Sydney Thorson, shows us how a small scratch can become something much more.

When Dr. Travis Kowalski was young, his father would ask him to draw a squiggle on a piece of paper. Then, spin it around until he saw something colorful to make out of it. 

“One of the techniques he taught me for how to learn how to draw better. If you didn’t have any ideas, to put random shapes down there to see what patterns you could see in the shapes to draw that,” Dr. Kowalski said.

So when his daughter, Lili, started Kindergarten, he wanted her to feel less nervous. And that’s how it all started.

“I’d pack her lunch in the morning and I’d put a little message on a napkin and I would draw something, and one day I couldn’t think of anything to draw, I had like artist’s block, so I had her draw a squiggle for me, just a random shape on the napkin and so I turned that shape into a picture.” Dr. Kowalski said.

Every morning before school, Dr. Kawolski will stand right here at the kitchen counter and create napkin art for his daughters and his wife.

“I just started working at Southwest this year although, I’ve been a teacher for 15 years. And going back into the classroom, seeing all the wonderful napkins my husband has been doing for my girls, I wanted to be a part of that process and so he has me draw a squiggle on a napkin,” Bailey Kowalski said.

So Mrs. Kowalski will show that squiggle to her classroom and the students will guess what it might be.

“If they are very close to the guess or if they guess the exact thing, then they get the opportunity to draw their own squiggle on a napkin and he will create a piece of artwork for them,” Mrs. Kowalski said.

Dr. Kowalski likes to surprise his daughters and Mrs. Kowalski’s students by turning the squiggle into something they wouldn’t expect.

“Maybe I see a cartoon character, maybe I see an animal, maybe I see dinosaurs or something that we’ve been talking about the day before,” Dr. Kowalski said.

“Most of the time we do random squiggles that we come up with and it’s really cool to see how he turned it into that and most of the time I can’t even find them so it’s really cool to see the creativity that’s put into it,” Lili Kowalski, daughter, said.

Daughter Lili is now in 8th grade and daughter Mia is in 5th. Every day at lunch, Maia opens up her lunch bag to find what her squiggle turned into. This was Dr. Kowalski’s first time seeing his daughter’s reaction.

“I think this is a little quirk of our family and we like it and it’s a nice tradition to open up at lunch everyday,” Lili said.

Although this art is on a disposable napkin, there is a bigger meaning behind the tradition.

“The thing that I like about it, the thing that I would like to spread about this idea is that a lot of art is a collaborative affair, it’s something that you can work together, put together little pieces and have something kind of unexpected that comes out of it,” Dr. Kowalski said.

He says that sometimes people think of art as something to stare at and appreciate, but that it can’t be interactive and surprising. He says it also plays into his classroom.

“I do it with number or ideas in the classroom and then I do it with shapes and colors on napkins but that idea, that solving a puzzle whether it’s a picture puzzle or a mathematical puzzle or whether it’s a language kind of puzzle that you can solve together that you can work on an idea together and you can be surprised with the results that come out of those,” Dr. Kowalski said.

A tradition both Dr. Kowalski and his family hope to continue.

“So I’ve seen the transformation of how it was brought from when he was a little boy to when we were in college and now in our family and I love it. It’s a very unique thing but it’s so much fun and I love his creativity, it just astounds me every day,” Mrs. Kowalski said.

“I wish I could but I am not artistic at all so probably not but I hope I could do it for my future kids,” Lili said.

Kowalski posts both the starting squiggle and the finished product on his Instagram page.

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