Local Dads Create Masterpieces On Their Children's Lunch Bags

Chefs know that when it comes to providing food, presentation counts.

So do a couple of local dads.

Each day, their kids go to school toting a paper lunch bag that each dad has embellished with a Transformer, or a goofy rabbit, or Elsa from “Frozen,” or a burping banana.

Granted, the gesture isn’t wholly original. Thoughtful parents have been drawing on lunch bags or tucking in sweet notes with the Oreos for generations of kids.

Still, when Bryan Dunn posted photos of a few of his son’s lunch bags on Reddit, a social media site, he got 3 million views, which led to landing on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show website, which led to more hits, which resulted in a slew of e-mails from people all over the world. (He’s on Facebook as the Bag Dad.)

“It was surreal,” said Dunn, a graphic illustrator who lives in Eden Prairie. “I mean, they’re just lunch bags. I think people like that I’m doing it for Rowan, and doing it every day.”

Brent Schoonover gets similar reactions from teachers and parents who see the splashy bags that 4-year-old Josie brings to preschool — so much so that he’s quite clear on the fact that he won’t take “commissions” to illustrate bags for others. He began when Josie started preschool and was offered a choice of school lunch or bringing her own.

“My wife and I remembered school lunches as ‘Eww,’ and while I’m sure they’ve gotten better, we thought we’d make her a bag lunch,” Schoonover said. Once Josie’s preferred PB&J was in the bag, though, “I thought, well, this is a little boring,” and he sketched a cartoon character.

He never intended to make it a habit, but when precocious Josie liked that her bags stood out, “I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m drawing stuff on her bags for school now.’ ”

Schoonover, a freelance illustrator in St. Paul (www.brentschoonover.com), has come to relish the task, especially given how technology has changed his field with computers that seem to do everything but sharpen a pencil.

“Lunch bags still are something I can draw by hand,” he said, explaining that he regards the bags as a sort of morning warm-up exercise “to kick the rust out.”

Dunn sees a similar benefit, only at the other end of his day doing contract work in graphic illustration for Thomson Reuters.

“This is something I’ll do in the last 15 minutes at work,” he said. “I’m drawing all the time anyway, so I just thought I would do this to sort of wind down. I don’t have to align any text or make sure it’s in the right color register.”

A visit to school revealed that he had become known as “the bag dad,” and he was presented with a stack of bags that teachers had saved, unable to throw them away. “It’s sort of anti-recycling,” he said, laughing.

Rowan, who’s 7 and considers his best lunch sandwich “usually ham,” said he likes that other kids enjoy his lunch bags, although he was noncommital about whether they made his lunch taste any better, which his mom, Jessica, considered testimony to the quality of her own contribution.

Rowan said he usually gives away that day’s bag to anyone who wants it, although “I got some Pokéman cards for my last bag,” he said — exhibiting a bartering spirit that Dunn does not encourage. “I tell him to just give them away.”

Dunn has consented to illustrate bags for a few birthday parties, but mostly he likes keeping this a family thing. Sometimes he and Rowan brainstorm on what to draw and Rowan occasionally colors in his dad’s drawings. And make no mistake, 3-year-old Mairin already expects similar perks when she starts school.

In the Schoonover household, Dad expects to be drawing bags for quite some time, as well, with 5-month-old Millie watching everything her older sister does. And yes, Josie and Millie both were named after famous cartoon characters — Josie of the Pussy Cats and Millie of modeling fame.

Consulting with Josie about what to draw on the bags helps keep him in the loop with what’s hot in kids’ culture, such as appreciating the staying power of last year’s Disney movie “Frozen.” “That was, and is, a monster.”

Josie, for her part, “can sometimes be quite the art director,” tsk-tsking if he colors Rainbow Dash (one of the My Little Pony ponies, duh) purple instead of blue. Turns out Dad takes direction well, “and it’s nice to have something between us that’s just for her.”