Double Latte with a Doodle on the Side
Double Latte with a Doodle on the Side
THURSDAY NOVEMBER 10th, 2011
There’s a story being told around these parts – something of a Lansing urban legend. It’s a story shared wherever people gather around the warm glow of a fire, or the steam rising from a hot mocha cappuccino with sprinkles. It’s the story of a man. Not just any man; a white-bearded bear of a man, who quietly slips into your presence while you’re distracted by your chai tea. With his ball cap pulled low over his eyes, he furtively and purposefully executes his work with a surgeon’s precision. While you are lost in your thoughts he escapes unnoticed into the dark of night. However; once he is gone and the fog in your brain lifts, you see the evidence of his existence. Your mouth gapes open as you gaze at the startling proof that he was here. There it is on the edge of the counter. You extend your hand to touch what might just be a mirage. Just as it is within your grasp, the barista snatches it away. You cry out in desperate angst, ‘Who is this man?! Was he really here?’ The barista smirks and calmly pins it to the bulletin board, a trophy for all to see. It’s a cocktail napkin revealing an ink drawing of a goofy face and a humorous caption.
Okay, so as far as urban legends go, this one isn’t all that scary. But at least it’s based in fact. Dennis Preston is a local artist and musician. He’s one of the lucky few who have been able to do what he loves for his entire life. As a way of sharing his gift while enriching others’ lives, he often “doodles” onto a napkin while relaxing at a Lansing area Biggbycoffee shop (usually, he is found at the South Waverly or at the Elmwood location). These doodles are more than mere aimless scribbles, which is what you’d get if most of us were to doodle on a napkin. Our napkins would be whisked away as quickly as the empty coffee cups and torn Splenda packets. Instead, Preston’s “doodles” are pretty darned impressive and intricately drawn caricatures, meant to evoke a smile and perhaps a thought. He notes on them that they are property of Biggby’s coffee, and if anyone would like to have one of them, they must simply give a $10 tip to the barista on duty at the time. That seems like a pretty good price for an original piece of art. Why napkins? “Well, it beats toilet paper,” Preston offers with a smile.
Understandably, the baristas love this. But so do the patrons; even those who just love reading them. The napkins are left posted on the bulletin board where the patrons will flip through them as they wait for their orders to be filled. At one point, one of the managers tried to remove them, supposedly because they weren’t really Biggby-related business. Some of the frequent customers demanded that the napkins be returned or they wouldn’t be returning as customers. Being a manager with discerning judgment, the napkins were returned, and all is right again in the world of coffeeshop napkin art. Nicole Maison, Director of Marketing at Biggby, said, “We love his creativity and how he uses our values of ‘B happy, have fun, make friends, love people and drink great coffee’ in the drawings that he does.”
Preston began his career as an artist in the 1960′s, at the age of 14. A cousin of a friend was in a Michigan garage band known as ‘Tonto and the Renegades.’ Given Preston’s penchant for drawing, his classmate asked him to draw a logo for the band’s drum head. Essentially, that’s all it took to get him off and running. Other area bands began to clamor for his artwork on their drum heads, posters, and promo material. Eventually, his talents led him to a Detroit music promoter, who connected him with the Sherwood Forest music festivals, which were sort of Woodstock-type events near Flint, Michigan. From there, word got out and he ended up doing all sorts of artwork for well known rock bands of the 60′s and 70′s; The Byrds, Alice Cooper, The Steve Miller Band, Edgar Winter & Leon Russell, and The Guess Who, to name a few.
He once did a poster for the band ‘America,’ and was able to attend their concert. It happened to be the birthday of one of the members of the band and the band’s promoter asked him to draw a birthday card. So Preston spent most of the concert standing by the side of the stage, drawing a caricature of the musician sitting backward on a ‘Horse with No Name.’ Needless to say, that endeared him to the group.
Preston’s napkin doodling began in the 60’s as well, when he was a bass player for his own band. The band would congregate at a place called ‘Dogs ‘N Suds’ on Michigan Avenue. He would create drawings on napkins and leave them there. After a while, he noticed that they had saved all the napkins, and hung them all over one wall for everyone to enjoy. The tradition continued when Biggby (then Beaner’s) opened their doors in the late 90′s.
Preston said it is not always understood what he does. The caricatures are not of customers, but from his imagination. Sometimes customers may inspire a certain drawing, but they are never of anyone specific. However, he is also often hired to either entertain at functions by drawing caricatures of those attending, or commissioned to create a work of someone specific.
He recalls a time when he was contacted from his Yellow Pages ad under “Entertainment” (If you’re under 25, ask your parents what the Yellow Pages are). “Someone called and asked if I could dress up like the purple dinosaur, Barney. And I explained that I drew caricatures; I didn’t dress up like characters. Those are different words,” Preston said. “Then they asked if I could draw caricatures while dressed up like Barney.”
Preston has also gone on to provide illustrations for a new upcoming line of clothing, as well as a book on conservative values, called Pointed Poems. The book’s author, Craig Wieland, said he saw some of Preston’s work on postcards being mailed out by a local business. “I had written a handful of poems for my kids,” said Wieland, “and as a gift one Christmas, I was going to create a little booklet of the poems.” He found out how to reach Preston and proposed he illustrate what was then just an idea he had for homemade Christmas gifts. “We used to meet at Biggby and I would read the poems to him and perform all the characters as he frantically drew facial expressions and caricatures. I’m sure the other customers thought we were nuts,” Wieland added.
What started out as ten poems for a Christmas gift turned into 31 poems and over 400 illustrations, and a published book which has gotten national attention. “Dennis was careful to provide a fairly balanced portrayal of both conservative and liberal characters, which is what we both wanted to do,” said Wieland.
It seems that Preston’s work always leads him to more work. His napkin art has lead to a lot of commissioned pieces as well as drawing caricatures at public events. He may be seen during Silver Bells in the City, Lansing’s annual holiday parade and tree lighting, providing caricatures for anyone who asks. He has also done some work for Biggby Coffee in a more official capacity. “When we had to look for a caricaturist for our annual meeting with our franchisees last year,” said Ms. Maison, “Dennis was our choice and brought his talent and love for drawing to all of our franchisees as well as our home office staff.”
He also teaches “Humorous Illustration” at LCC, where he has been teaching since 1977. While he is completely self-taught, his track record is hard to argue with. “I like teaching,” he said. “I like to see my students make a living with their artwork.”
Preston has not ignored his musical abilities, either. He has a CD, “Songs and Inventions,” coming out soon, on which he plays a number of the instruments and performs the vocals. You can find samples of his songs on his profile on ReverbNation.
So next time you find yourself at a Lansing area Biggby, waiting for your tall, skinny, half-caf, caramel latte, take a look around and see if you can spot the mysterious Napkin Guy. He’s the one not dressed as Barney.
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