Last Christmas we received the most unique Christmas card from my friend, Brooke.
I stared at it for a long time, trying to absorb the combination of details, all of which embody Brooke and her family; her husband’s tattoos, Brooke’s appreciation for a nice glass of red and the color purple, their three furbabies with three very distinct personalities. “I took thorough pictures of my husband’s tattoos and the house is perfect, right down to the metal art between the windows,” Brooke mentioned. “And Clover barks at the TV. I think that’s the big detail that made me cry when I saw it. Like YES! That’s my family!”
Then I had a thought. I must have one of these. It was the perfect 50th birthday gift for the man who now owns a Big Green Egg and all the accessories, a complete beer-making kit and a subscription to Audible.
I texted Brooke immediately and she put me in touch with the artist, Jarrett Rutland, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate and Asheville, North Carolina resident who illustrated the children’s book Alligator Wedding
before writing and illustrating 2 children’s books of his own: I Love You No Matter What: A Prince Chirpio Story
Jarrett is also the creator behind Escapist Comix (or click here for non-Facebook folks), home of the Robot Samurai Penguins comic book series. And now he is creating customized narrative illustrations for families worldwide.
I had no idea what to expect regarding Jarrett’s process, but Brooke mentioned that he communicates mostly through text messaging and he may friend request me on Facebook so he can develop a sense of our personalities and interests. I readily agreed to the first, I had to think for a minute about the second. Admittedly, my Facebook friend group isn’t exactly restricted to the inner circle, but I had reservations about granting access to a complete stranger. Isn’t that how Dateline starts? It also gave me pause to think that someone could learn more about me through my Facebook page than from my answers on a questionnaire. But for about 90% of us, this is our truth. We live online and if you are hiring an artist to draw an accurate impression of your family, something that exceeds caricature, you should let him in.
My first text conversation with Jarrett discussed, naturally, his prices. After all, it is a custom piece of artwork by a published artist. How much was this going to set me back? Jarrett charges $260 for a 10″x12.5″ piece and $290 for an 11″x15″ piece. As anyone with a Business 101 class under their belt will tell you, charge just slightly more for the bigger product and people will almost always veer in that direction. I was already spending $250+…what’s another $30? Also, that was still within my This is a big birthday budget. And as I type this post, when I glance at our artwork hanging on the wall, I can’t imagine it being anything but what it is, which is perfect.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After I sent a deposit to Jarrett through PayPal (which officially placed our order in his queue), he emailed me a questionnaire. It included fairly basic questions like Describe the members of your family and What are some of your interests? Initially, I was going to surprise Neal with this gift so I was going to answer all of the questions on my own. But as I thought about it hanging in our house, I decided we should do this together. So, one night after Blue went to bed, we sat down with a bottle of wine and a pen and answered each question with excessive (bordering on obnoxious) detail. I wanted to cover all of our bases. Brown paper packages tied up with string, these are a few of our favorite things…
Seriously, it was at least 2 paragraphs for each answer. But I write a blog and no one has ever accused me of being shy, humble, or brief.
And then I sent a ton of pictures; 20, to be exact. Pictures of our RV and my hair and Blue’s bike and Neal’s uniform (with close-up pictures of his patches). I sent pictures of my favorite Birkenstock sandals and the Little Free Library Neal built in Leavenworth and my favorite UK hoodie. Jarrett asked for clearer pictures of Blue’s Cub Scout hat, which I had to go looking for because it had fallen behind the bookshelf after the last den meeting. And then I asked him to please include our angel baby, but not in an obvious way because I was still not ready to answer a 5 year-old’s questions about the son that came before him. I mentioned that Mom and I both have blue butterfly tattoos to symbolize Shepherd’s life and that he could use that somewhere in his narrative.
And then I waited.
One morning I got a text. “What do you think?”
I didn’t answer right away. I sat down for a minute and just took it all in. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It was so much better. There we were, perched atop Delicate Arch at Arches National Park, where we had dragged Blue on a 5 AM hike up a rock face so we could see this icon before the Moab heat overwhelmed us. The Big Green Egg was smoking meat below and Blue was feeding the wildife. A beer, a bourbon and our precious butterfly. It was almost perfect.
“I LOVE IT! But, um, can you add our cats? Lulu is the Tortoise Siamese and Poppy is our angel kitty,” I asked Jarrett. He answered immediately. “Of course!” I understood how important it is to be happy with the first draft. Everything builds from this and it is sometimes impossible to make changes after the ink is on. I needed to be sure this is what I wanted. Jarrett sent a second proof with both kitties depicted and I was sure…now it was perfect. Time to paint!
Photos courtesy of Break the Mold Photo
I waited and Jarrett worked.
I had to do a lot of things to distract me because the anticipation was almost too much. I didn’t get any of these updates until after the piece was completed and I mentioned to Jarrett that I would like to write a review for my blog. So, in the meantime, I knitted a triangular washcloth and watched old Mr. Rogers episodes on YouTube with Blue.
Then one morning I got a text. “What do you think?”
Yes. Yes. Holy crap how did you do that? YES!
Although…could you add a little more brown to Lulu’s fur…and maybe give my pants a hem? I felt it was risky to even question, considering the paint was already dry, but you never know until you ask. The worst he could say was no, I’m sorry and I was OK with that, too.
Jarrett managed to adjust the hem and he added a little mottling to Lulu’s fur. He even added some stars and connected them, forming constellations out of all our previous duty stations. I actually cried.
People may see this piece hanging above our couch and think it’s a fun depiction of our family; a unique piece of art that illustrates our appetite for smoked meat, Blue’s obsession with animals and my love of reading, but the more subtle details are precisely what make it so special. There is an inside joke (about the squirrel), a big brother keeping watch over baby brother, and dawn breaking behind us, which is exactly how it looked when we rounded the final turn to Delicate Arch. And who could know when we received the completed piece that Blue would be catching lizards in Southern California just 6 months later? This duty station wasn’t even on our radar at that time. He has yet to try to feed one baked goods. I think it just hasn’t occurred to him.
Of all the things in our house that spark joy, this is at the top. It is our family: a family of 4 with 2 furbabies.
Here is the genius behind Jarrett’s talent: this could have easily become a painting that featured us in the middle, surrounded by all of our favorite things. And I sent him a lengthy list of our favorite things. He didn’t include all of them. He used about 1/3 of what I sent him, but he chose the perfect 1/3. I couldn’t narrow it down, but he could. He didn’t include my camera or the RV or our bikes or the map of all the places where we’ve been. I was picturing a campground scene with us huddled around a fire roasting s’mores, while the lights of the RV glowed from a distance. Obviously, this is nothing like what I imagined. But depicting us lounging on top of Delicate Arch lends a magical quality to the entire piece. We would never realistically sit in this particular spot, but it certainly represents how relaxed we feel in nature, especially in our national parks, and how accomplished we felt after conquering this hike with a 3 year old at 5 AM. It isn’t a collage of interests, it’s a snapshot of this moment in time. Neal won’t always be in the Army, Blue won’t always be fascinated by lizards and someday Lulu will cross the rainbow bridge, but right now, this is our life together. It was intended for Neal, but it ended up being a gift to all of us.
Since completing our narrative illustration, Jarrett has finished dozens more, most of which can be seen on his Facebook page under the Customs Album. These are just a few of my favorites from his recent work:
This last one…that sky. Don’t you just want to pull up a chair and watch the sunset?
Many thanks to Jarrett for capturing the absolute essence of Team Miller. If you would like your own customized narrative illustration, mention this blog post when you book and get 10% off your order!
You can email Jarrett at firstname.lastname@example.org or message him on his Facebook page. If you are interested in checking out exclusive, behind-the-scenes footage of Jarrett’s work, you can subscribe to his Patreon page here.