By Tony Gonzalez. Photos by Steven S. Harman and Mike Smith.
Architect Mike W. Smith is building something special for his children. But it doesn't involve a building.
He has drawn up something more spectacular: an imaginary world where Sara, his 10-year-old daughter, is the main character. Her life unfolds each week in elaborate drawings on the brown paper lunch bags she takes to school.
She's the comic book hero of her own story - or at least of his story about her.
Dad figures into the plot sometimes. Mom and brother, too. Occasionally the family dog makes an appearance, and Sara's friends have been known to pop up. The characters go on adventures inside Sara's leaky locker, rescue fairy tale characters from danger and help overcome stage fright for the school talent show.
Six years into the story, with characters like Locker Gnome and the Dry Erase Elves involved - and after a field trip to the "zooscraper," which, of course, is a zoo atop a skyscraper - the lunch bag has never looked the same.
It all started with one of Dad's pen drawings, so Sara could find her lunch among all the others on a kindergarten field trip. It has now become Doodle Bag Productions - a full-color world, a family tradition, a reignited hobby and the inklings of a possible children's book.
"How many people have a whole series of characters and bags that revolve all around them?" said mom Karin W. Smith. "It's something that not only will Sara treasure for the rest of her life, but all of us will. Our lives are definitely richer for it, and it's something that only Mike can do."
Not bad for a doodling dad, now 43, who laughs when he thinks back - 300 bags back - to the first one, a simple princess he drew that looked like Sara, sort of.
"I expected it to be thrown away," he said.
How one simple drawing grew into an obsession is a story in itself, though it might be hard to serialize. It's rooted in Smith's love for his children and what he wants for them - a no-limits imagination that lets them see all that's possible.
Lost lunch box
Before Sara began kindergarten, Mike had already been jotting down quick characters, without fanfare, for older son Taylor's lunch bags.
But it was Sara who came home one Friday with her doodle bag laminated, by a teacher who seemed to be saying it was worth saving.
Around the same time, Sara lost her plastic lunch box, so Mike kept drawing on her bags. The day she found the box, he stopped.
But that day, Sara asked again for a bag. Dad - distracted as dads can be - took that to mean she wanted him to transfer the food from plastic to paper and send her along.
But he was doing it wrong, she told him.
"I want one with a drawing," she said.
For the next few months, Mike completed daily drawings for Sara and Taylor. By summertime, he was exhausted.
"I was doing both kids' stories every morning before school," he said.
But Sara, then a rising first-grader at Percy Priest Elementary School, drives a hard bargain.
In the deal they worked out, Mike would scale back to one drawing per week. But these would be full-color, with an accompanying short story typed and printed and slipped inside the bag.
With a publication schedule that would test any father, Mike must perpetually dream up narratives and sketch ideas.
He usually begins on Sunday night. Each weeknight, after dinner and homework, he dedicates a few hours to inking, cross-hatching and coloring each story. By Thursday nights, he's on deadline to write the accompanying narrative.
'His own little world'
Like many storytellers, Mike often makes things up as he goes.
The twists and turns follow the books Sara reads in school, the notes teachers send home, or things her friends talk about when they come to play.
Some start from scratch. In the zooscraper series, students ride on a bus powered by jelly beans, watch a chicken opera and travel around with a cardboard box that has green legs - "The box turtle, get it!?" Sara said, laughing.
Taylor, in the next room over, called out, "I like that one!"
Their mom, Karin, just marvels. She watches for Mike's architectural interests to creep in, with curling stairwells and crumbling brick walls that don't have to be quite as precise as the work he does for a living.
"It's just tremendous, the attention he puts to the detail," she said. "He can create his own little world. And because it's an illustration and it's a story, he's not bound to the same rules when he is creating architecture."
Eventually, Taylor, now 14 and soon to be a high school freshman, decided his story bags were a little too embarrassing. So he gets only dragons and sci-fi creatures now. That's no problem - Mike has been drawing those all his life.
Sara, perhaps sharing in some of her father's obsessive DNA, rarely relents.
"There's times where they don't go to school on a Friday and I think I have an out," Mike said.
She'll check his progress on Tuesday with the early deadline in mind - Thursday.
"The school year sometimes sneaks up on me," Mike said. "Other times, I know I just need to get a bag out."
Finding freedom from straight lines
Mike works most nights from a small, square basement studio in the Smiths' home near Lipscomb University. Doodle bags in black frames lean against his computer desk on one wall. A tall drafting table stands opposite, and a brown shelf packed with "Star Wars" toys and figurines occupies the middle.
Over time, Mike has spun off other drawings. For Christmas, he illustrates carols. He depicts the family in costume for Halloween cards. He's drawn characters for local businesses and church auctions.
Yet he always comes back to the bags.
In his earliest efforts, Mike got the most fun out of the landscapes and building interiors in the background. He found an odd freedom in drawing curved lines after spending his architect days drawing only straight ones.
Over time, creating characters has become his interest. For one school year, he borrowed from children's books. But in Sara's universe, each famous place or character came with a defect, like Gary Cotter, the child wizard at Frogwarts. That kind of thing.
Sara also picks up on lessons that her dad tries to slip into the stories. He likes to tout creativity and encourage her to be brave.
"There's a point where you can't be too preachy. It's still gotta be a fun story," Mike said.
"Like when I was sticking her (vocabulary) words on the bags, she didn't like that."
Now heading into sixth grade at J.T. Moore Middle School, Sara remains the main character, although she hardly lets on.
Despite her talent show success - in the story, at least - she still doesn't say much in front of strangers.
When it came time to explain the double-barreled waffle maker from one bag, and all of the required back story to understand it, she threw up her arms and let Dad explain.
He obliged, but when he was finished he asked her, "Do I embarrass you?"
"Just a little," she replied.
For now, at least, that's a small price to pay for being the star of your own story.
Unlike big brother, Sara still wants her doodle bags each Friday. Mike said he'll keep drawing as long as she lets him.
"She's told me that I'm supposed to keep doing them forever," he said.
So yeah, it could be awhile.