By: Anthony Bettin
Finding himself out of work and, for the first time, a stay-at-home dad, Edina resident Bradley Smith wanted a way to connect with his kids. Thinking back to his own childhood, he came up with a plan.
“When I was a kid, my mom used to leave me notes in my backpack or whatever, so I started leaving notes inside my kids’ lunch bags about two years ago,” Smith says.
The only problem? His son Macallen and daughter Morgan weren’t reading them. So he started writing the notes on the outside of their lunch bags. Again, they went ignored.
“And so I thought, ‘OK, I can win that game.’ And so I put the note actually on the bottom of the lunch bag, so when they put the bag down, it’s like their classmate would see the note at the bottom of the bag,” Smith says.
The lunchtime notes became full-on works of art, which led to an Instagram page, @lunchbagartdad. He doesn’t do it for the social media clout, though.
"It was really to connect with my kids, and then use art to create that conversation as a family," he says. "It’s something we do together."
Smith tries to make the drawings personal, asking the kids what they’re doing in school or what book they’re reading and using that as inspiration. On Mondays, the bags recap the weekend, while Friday’s bags preview what’s coming up on the family’s days off.
“It’s one thing to knock out a picture, but I really try and put thought into what am I drawing and what colors am I using and why,” Smith says. “I just try to find inspiration wherever it comes, but my real purpose, again, is to find something that relates to the kids and their life.”
Bradley’s wife, Becky, also totes an adorned lunch bag to her job at Target’s corporate offices in downtown Minneapolis.
A lunch bag drawing takes anywhere from five to 30 minutes. Smith started out using crayons but has since upgraded to high-end colored pencils.
And dad isn’t the only artistic member of the family.
“Before lunch bags, we would do coloring contests all the time at the home. We’d pick a theme and everyone would have to draw a picture,” he says. “We’d judge it, kind of like a Food Network-type show, we’d just judge it for fun.”
When Bradley and Becky married and decided to start a family, they returned to the city he grew up in—Edina. He says the strong sense of community drew him back.
“People seem to be, in general, committed to doing well and seeing other people do well and really being a learning community,” he says. “It’s just really active and vibrant.”
Before Smith was a stay-at-home dad, he got an MBA and worked for local powerhouses Target and Best Buy. Recently, he got his second master’s degree in liberal studies.
“I did that with the intent of actually writing some books and doing some publishing of my own,” he says. “And I still have those book ideas but life has evolved, and I sort of laugh that I find myself doing now a lot of colored pencil drawings instead.”
Laugh he may, but those colored pencil drawings have earned Smith some recognition in our community.
“I was at Blick’s and the lady was asking if I found everything I wanted,” he says. “And the person in line goes, ‘Are you lunch bag art dad?’”
What's next for the paper bag Picasso? People have suggested he open a gallery, or even sell original bags or prints. He has considered growing the project into a nonprofit or using the bags to raise money for charity.
“I just enjoy doing the art, I enjoy the conversation,” he says. “I just want to make sure that whoever and however it grows and proceeds next, there’s some usefulness to it, it’s not just throw it on lunchboxes and be done.”
No matter where the bags take him—or where his wife and kids take the bags—Smith feels fulfilled by the familial bonds the project has bolstered.
“I’ve met my goal, which is I feel like I have connected with my kids, I’ve created a conversation that they can have with their friends, some of the neighbors, people at school,” he says.
And what began as a modest personal project has encouraged others—after seeing his Instagram, a member of his writing group said, “You’ve now inspired me to do more.”
“And that was like a really gratifying moment,” Smith says. “That somebody just saw what I was doing and felt that they could do more or have a better conversation or a different conversation with their son or daughter.”
“I feel like if you do good things and you put off a good vibration, hopefully you can raise the vibration of others around you to do more with their time and resources and their skills that they have.”