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Ellicott City's Bean Hollow fills up with napkin art

Tucked in the very back of the Bean Hollow, a cozy coffee shop at the base of Ellicott City's Main Street, there's a black and white table with thunderbolt designs and a side panel that, when removed, reveals a not-so-secret trove of notes and drawings from dozens of anonymous customers.

Now, Bean Hollow owner Gretchen Shuey is moving the art out of its hiding place.

Last month, she put up the first round of what she hopes will be an ongoing exhibit highlighting her talented customers' works.

She won't run out of material for quite some time: by now, Shuey has accumulated enough doodles to fill a crate with 11 notebooks and upward of a hundred free-floating brown paper napkins.

The tradition started out small. In 2008, Shuey discovered a group of friends, who called themselves by colorful codenames – "Me," "Other," "The DON," "Third," "Cute Couple" and "Four Sticky Muffineers" – had been leaving messages for each other in the table's secret drawer.

She decided to join in. She wrote them a note of her own and put some paper under the table to encourage the conversation. Eventually, others caught on and she began supplying the drawer with notebooks.

Though Shuey knew people were using the drawer to stash their work, just how much napkin and notebook art was stored in there flew under her radar for a while.

"Then one day, I… started going through the notebooks, and realized that we had a lot of amazing artists and poetry in the notebooks," she said. "People were writing things that were inspirational, they were writing about their struggles, they were writing about spending the day in Ellicott City with their family or their friends."

She decided it was time to share their "crazy talent" with the rest of the community.

Sifting through all the art she's collected over the past six years, Shuey, who has owned the Bean Hollow for a decade, started picking up on some dominant themes: "love, friends and family, struggle and inspiration, random miscellaneous thoughts, love for Bean Hollow staff and the café itself."

Much of the art, she said, gives the "sense of what it means to have a place to come and spend time with friends and family and neighbors."

Local artist Amy Albright started coming to the Bean Hollow on a regular basis because of the community vibe.

"It's always been kind of a little oasis basically within Ellicott City," she said.

Shuey has activately cultivated that atmosphere by bucking the trend of free WiFi in coffee shops, opting instead to encourage customers to tear their eyes away from a screen and connect with others one-on-one.

"It's one of the few remaining places where you can actually have a conversation," Albright said. "Not just with your friends, but you meet people there."

The Ellicott City resident said she found Bean Hollow's secret art drawer "by surprise.

"When I opened it, I thought it was the coolest thing," she said.

Albright has made multiple contributions of her own to the drawer over the past few years.

One of her first – a jaguar she drew on a napkin in 2010 – is now on display.

Albright, who works part-time at an animal hospital, often uses animal subjects in her art. The jaguar drawing was an homage to a paper napkin drawing she herself had grown up admiring.

"When I was very little my parents knew this wildlife artist, and he drew a jaguar on a napkin for me," she recalled. "To me, at the time, it was the best drawing ever… and I wanted to do the same when I grew up."

Although Albright makes it a habit to sign and date her works, most of the other artists on the wall are anonymous.

The display, organized onto six rectangular bulletin boards mounted along one wall, is by turns humorous and heartbreaking, impressively realistic and whimsically simple.

A drawing of an exaggeratedly large head takes a whiff of a steaming cup of coffee in one, and in another, an artist offers some original advice: "Put a leaf of sage in your boot, and at the end of the day, a spicy scent will be your reward!"

Other notes are more serious, filled with melancholy, fear and hope.

One features a girl bundled up in a scarf and hat, her large eyes at once filled with a mix of anxiety and resolve.

"I'm 25 years old and this Monday I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 3 years ago," the artist wrote next to her drawing. "Everything will be OK, I'm sure of it, even though my fingers and toes are numb and my treatment is hard, I'll be OK!!"

Some offer encouragement.

"I miss my friends from my childhood/teen [years]," one reads. "I'd give almost anything to go back to that time."

Next to the note, someone else scribbled a response: "Don't look back at the past. Look at something you can change for the better, like the future."

"The biggest message that I see is 'be strong, be yourself, have hope, follow your dreams,'" Shuey said. "You will see it repeated over and over and over. Whether people are trying to convince themselves or help others, I'm not sure."

She plans to update the exhibit with new art from the drawer every six weeks or so. She's also looking into the logistics of compiling the art for a coffee table book and selling it for proceeds to benefit a charity that supports workers in countries where coffee is grown.

Shuey said she thinks she'll keep the display going until the art dries up – which could be a long time, judging on the burst of popularity the drawer has seen since she put up the display. While notebooks would usually take about six months to fill with art and notes, the current one – placed in the drawer in February – is about halfway there already.

Most important, Shuey said, is the idea of her customers connecting and supporting one another.

Reading through old notebook entries, she found one that summed up the goal:

"The purpose of this notebook is to connect people across time… it allows us to understand the thoughts and emotions of people we've never met and will never meet. The musings recorded here are proof that humanity's depth is a truth, not a creation of our imaginings. As alone as we may feel, there is always someone with whom we can connect and share the difficulties of our situation. The true value of humanity is what we can do for each other, and the only true knowledge is that of people. Without these, though one may gain all the riches of the world and all the power in the universe, a person will never be complete… what we share is all that will survive beyond ourselves."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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