Local artist Matt Miller saw much more than an empty cup.

During an early morning coffee group meeting at a Hays donut shop, Miller grabbed a styrofoam cup and a toothpick, then began etching a friend’s portrait into the cup. That impromptu doodle inspired a much larger project designed to pay tribute to an unlikely and long-lasting group of friends.

When Bill Flipse moved to Hays approximately 15 years ago, he became a regular customer at Daylight Donuts, 113 E. Eighth, for morning coffee and pastries. He realized many other locals frequented the business for coffee and conversation, and began pulling tables together.

A group of approximately 40 people has been gathering most mornings ever since, often dividing into an “early” group at 6:30 a.m. and a later group at 8.

“I could see that we were all friends and communicating, so I thought let’s get us all together. We’re sometimes talking from one end of the table clear to another,” Flipse said. “We have a lot of good laughs and enjoy it. We talk about everything from politics to religion, you name it.

“What’s neat is we’re as diverse as you could probably get, and yet I don’t know of one person who just quit coming that got upset. We appreciate everybody’s viewpoint and accept their point of view.”

That’s how Flipse and Miller met. While the group consists of both men and women of varying ages, many are retirees. Flipse already had started a memorial tradition to honor friends who passed away, and was so impressed with Miller’s cup art that he saw an opportunity to further honor his friends and help promote the young artist’s career.

He commissioned Miller to create a commemorative coffee cup featuring the portrait of every coffee group regular. The series of 40 cups now is prominently displayed near the front counter of the donut shop.

Still using just a toothpick, Miller captures a surprising amount of detail in his portraits, covering the engraving with a dark-colored oil paint to make the faces stand out.

“As a group, each one of them individually is neat. When you put them all together, they’re pretty powerful as a group I think,” he said. “I’m just glad that Bill was able to give me the time to get it done. I’m kind of even amazed that I could get that much effect with just little scratches.”

Miller plans to enter the unique art series into the annual Smoky Hill Art Exhibition later this year.

The project was a nice change of pace for Miller, who experiments with several art forms but mainly prefers painting landscapes. He doesn’t yet have a website, but his work can be found on his Facebook and Instagram accounts. He also participates in Hays artwalks and other events, using a tiny house he built as a mobile museum.

Flipse recently resumed work as an independent contractor and also has hired Miller to help him with his business. He previously had been helping to babysit his grandson, Harrison, who has autism and is pictured next to Flipse in his portrait. Harrison was a regular fixture at the morning coffee group until he began school, and Flipse said he will always appreciate the care and understanding his donut shop friends demonstrated to him and his grandchild.

One coffee cup portrait already has been presented to the family of a long-time friend after his passing, and it was a gesture the family appreciated deeply, Flipse said. When someone passes, the group also orders that person’s favorite donut and drink — which Daylight Donut server Brenda Radke usually remembers — and places it at their seat in tribute.

Flipse said he firmly believes that having a good social life is therapeutic and essential for people of all ages.

“Maybe this sounds like a little too much about death and dying, but it really is a story about living life and enjoying it as best we can, together,” Flipse said. “One of our members lost his wife recently. I went to his home to visit him a few days after the funeral. One comment he made was golden words to my ears. He said, ‘I will have to get back to the donut shop. I need to start laughing again.’ ”