Mama’s Royal Cafe holds 29th annual Napkin Art Contest
on March 28, 2011
Breakfast and lunch hotspot Mama’s Royal Café is calling all doodlers, amateur and professional, young and old: The deadline for its 29th annual Napkin Art Contest is fast approaching. (Really fast, actually. Entries need to be in by March 31. You can either send them in by mail or drop them off at the café’s 4012 Broadway storefront).
The rules for this decades-old contest are simple: Use white paper napkins as your medium, and create art. Usually, entries are drawings or paintings on the napkins, varying in complexity from a basic sketch to portraiture to multi-hued pieces reminiscent of greats like Monet. As napkins are, by nature, an absorbent canvas, a few artists put a coating on the napkin before beginning, but most just work directly on the surface.
Sometimes artists take things a step further, like the 2010 contest winner, who sewed together a patchwork quilt of brightly painted squares of napkin. Over the years, the café has received jewelry, papier maché, and even a monkey sock puppet lookalike, all made out of napkins.
“A long time ago I got a dinner jacket made out of napkins,” said George Marino, who has owned Mama’s Royal Café since 1974. “The lining was cloth, but the outside was all made out of white napkins. I still have it—it’s a beautiful dinner jacket.”
Several years ago, one woman who got wind of the contest even sent Marino a slice of California history. Displayed in a frame on the wall of Mama’s Royal Café are her collection of cloth napkins from socials held at the San Jose parlor of the Daughters of the American West. Each is hand-decorated, and over 100 years old.
Marino started the contest in 1982, after he noticed an interesting behavioral pattern in his customers. Patrons, many of whom were students at the nearby California College of the Arts, would doodle or draw elaborate scenes on napkins, and give them to their servers or leave them behind on their tables. Marino was so impressed with some of the work that he made things competitive.
Ever since, Marino has received between 150 and 225 entries per year. Some are inspired by the café itself (where the food has won dozens of awards over the years), and some are nods to the artists’ personal lives. Some artists have a caffeine-fueled sense of humor—last year, one artist submitted a replica of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” this time titled “Decaf Nightmare.”
Others, said Marino, are topical or based on current events. “The year Michael Jackson died, we had five Michael Jackson-themed napkins,” said Marino. “And when Barack Obama was running for president, we probably had four that year that dealt with him.”
Once all this year’s entries are in, three winners and 25 honorable mentions will be selected among adults, and five children under 12 will also be awarded prizes.
Marino hands off the judging to local professionals—a panel of judges that changes yearly. This year, Marino’s wife, Jill, has two judges lined up and is looking for the third. Bert Monroy, who works in computer photorealism, and Derek Weisberg, a ceramic sculptor, will award first prize ($400), second prize ($300), third prize ($200), and 25 honorable mentions (breakfast or lunch for two at Mama’s Royal). George and Jill Marino take care of judging the kids’ section of the contest, which awards five burgeoning artists $10 each.
Each year, Marino displays about a third of the entries behind three oversized panels of Plexiglass around the restaurant. While he says he can’t keep all the napkins, he still has every single one that’s been on display, and is thinking about using them to create a napkin art book.
Marino says that many regular contestants submit an entry year after year, but that they’re always looking for new talent from anywhere—in the past, napkin art has come from as far away as Japan. And for Marino, receiving the napkins in the mail is a welcome change of pace. “The mail is not what it used to be,” said Marino. “You never expect to see something that you want—all your real mail comes through the computer. But this time of year, I get napkin art in the mail, and I love that.”
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