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Happiness is… Jo Ann Briseno’s Napkin Art

posted Thursday November 10th, 2016

I’m not sure when I first noticed Jo Ann Briseno’s art, when we first became friends on Facebook or when I found her on Instagram. I only know that I was captivated by her drawings, so simple in black pen on white paper napkins, a near-daily love letter left in her daughter’s lunch box. I learned that Briseno lives in metro Phoenix and that her daughter Maya, now 9, has Down syndrome. And then I learned so much more by following her drawings. We met earlier this year and I practically squealed (okay, maybe I did actually squeal) when she wrote to tell me her work was going to be shown for the first time.

The show is at The Millet House Gallery, 440 W. 1st Street in Mesa. The opening reception is Friday, Nov. 11, from 6 to 10 pm. Briseno was kind enough to ask me to read — Sophie and I will be there. I can’t wait.  (And if you can’t make it tomorrow night, the show will be up through mid-January. Details at and showings by appointment, I asked Briseno to tell me about her work in her own words:

The story of Happiness is…

My lunch box drawings started as a way to connect with Maya while she was at school.  About midway into her kindergarten year, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun do a little drawing on a napkin and stick it in her lunchbox every day.”  I didn’t expect them to return to me.  I figured they would get used and thrown away in the lunch room.  Maya’s teacher and aide saw the sketches and thought they were amazing.  They put them aside for her as she ate and then would put them back in the lunch box to return home. They were the first people to think of as them as art.

As a mother to a child with special need I didn’t have the time I wanted to devote to creating my art. I saw the lunch box napkins as an opportunity to practice the skill of drawing. 

Every morning while she is eating breakfast before school, I challenge myself by creating a little work of art for Maya in 10-15 mins. 

At first the drawings were just happy notes to stay connected to Maya and let her know I was there. Over time they have evolved into stories of Maya. I wanted to celebrate her milestones and began to call this series,  “Happiness is…” 

Milestones for parents of special needs children are pivotal points of development. Yet I didn’t want to label them as milestones because they are more than that.  They are the moments in life that matter most. They are happiness.

For me, “Happiness is…” the little things in her life that others might take for granted, like drinking out of an open cup, jumping with both feet, or going on a play date with a friend. I never want to forget these moments that are what make her who she is.

While my first love is photography I love drawing with a pen. It’s unforgiving and pushes me to let go of my fears about not being perfect. My drawings aren’t perfect just like my life.

As an artist I think we are challenged to make something that is thought provoking.  I do also believe that art can be something which brings awareness and at the same time happiness to the viewer. As simple as a little girl swinging on a swing, these drawing can reach may depths. Life is beautiful within all the hardships. There is beauty in every day actions.

I didn’t know that I would be doing these for years. I’ve come to realize that they are a way for me to create my art, they are a way to express myself as all artist need to do.  I’ve learned so much from these drawings. In many ways Maya’s voice is in my sketches and at the same time I have found my own voice as an artist.

See more of Jo Ann Briseno’s art on Instagram: @evrfwd

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Tags: Filed under: Down syndrome by Amysilverman

One Response to “Happiness is… Jo Ann Briseno’s Napkin Art”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I love this little story. Wish I could go to the exhibit!

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My Heart Can't Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome is available from Amazon and 
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