Drawing On His Past

Former doctor Don Stewart prefers pen over scalpel
The Birmingham News - Sunday, August 12, 2007

Kathy Kemp
News staff writer

You might say that Don Stewart's artwork is surgically drawn.

His lines are steady and razor thin. He connects multiple images to form one big picture, in the same way muscle and tissue and blood connect within the human body.

More and more these days, Stewart's complex ballpoint pen composite drawings reflect the life he abandoned 21 years ago when he left a hard-won surgical residency to become a full-time artist.

“Let me show you my self-portrait," he says, digging into a stack of prints in his Homewood studio/gallery, DS Art. Stewart pulls out a picture of what's clearly a duck, though close inspection reveals its body is in the shape of a doctor's bag. A pair of hypodermic needles forms its legs, with a speculum representing its beak.

The title of the piece is "Quack."

It's a joke, of course, typical of the self-effacing humor and visual puns that are hallmarks of Stewart's work. A more recent piece, "Cardiology," depicts the human heart formed by smaller images of playing cards, flash cards, greeting cards, recipe cards and board game cards. ("Community chest. Get it?")

"It's a heart made of cards, because, after all, cardiology should be the study of cards," Stewart explains. The 48-year-old grins like a happy child as he points out the image is bordered in ticker tape. "Get it?"

"Don is a very unusual person," says Dr. Alan Dimick, a retired University of Alabama School of Medicine professor who met Stewart when the younger man was in medical school. "The way he incorporates all these things into his pictures is so unique. And I have to say I've never had another student change careers after going so far in medicine."

At Mayo Clinic

Stewart earned his medical degree from UAB in 1985 and then headed to Minnesota, where he served a year-long surgical residency at the Mayo Clinic. He passed his medical boards and then promptly quit to take up art.
"It was a big disappointment to his father," Dimick says. "I have two sons who are doctors, so I can sympathize. I'm not sure how I would have reacted. But you have to be comfortable in what you choose to do for the rest of your life."

Stewart was as surprised as anyone by his career course change. At age 5, he had announced he wanted to become a doctor. That notion was preceded by his mother's death from cancer, and the many long hours he spent with his family in doctors' offices and hospital rooms.

"Ironically, all that time in doctors' waiting rooms put me in touch with Highlights for Children, working all those little puzzle pictures. That was a big influence on me artistically.”

After graduating from Vestavia Hills High School in 1977, he entered the pre-med program at Birmingham-Southern College. "Premed includes a lab with each class, and I wanted a break," Stewart says. "I wanted to do something that wasn't frontal-lobe, left-brain analytical stuff."

He enrolled in a basic drawing course and quickly impressed his teacher, who suggested Stewart consider a career in art. "He said, `If you insist on this medical thing, you should at least look into medical illustration,' and he handed me some pamphlets."

Stewart persevered, though by his third year in medical school at UAB, he was starting to question his choice. "It was definitely not what I thought it would be," Stewart says. "I thought it would be more of a fraternal and communal mentoring mindset. But it was largely an intimidating training program. And residency was like boot camp."

At the Mayo Clinic, Stewart says, he was on call 24/7 and got a half-day off every other Sunday. That left him no time to satisfy his creative side. "I needed to watch public television, I needed to read some poetry, I needed to plant a garden and I needed to spend a lot of time in the kitchen."

In what little spare time he had, Stewart drew pictures. He decided to draw St. Mary's Hospital, where he worked on the Mayo campus, in a style he discovered while at Birmingham-Southern. "The last assignment of the class was to draw a big picture made up of little pictures. I drew Picasso, with a brandy glass for his head. I made the glass broken to create the lines on his face."

A fellow internist suggested Stewart employ images of medical equipment in his depiction of St. Mary's. Look closely and you'll discover a blood pressure cuff, thermometer, stethoscope, retractor, tongue depressor, crutch and dozens of other items found in the hospital. His colleagues were impressed.

Not long after earning his license to practice in Minnesota, he sat himself down for a talking to. "I asked myself, would I want to send my daughter to me? With the attitude I had toward medicine?"

Stewart left the Mayo Clinic and moved to the small Minnesota town of Red Wing, where he set up shop as a graphic artist and got involved in the local arts community. In his spare time, he continued with his composite drawings. Another early piece shows a motorcycle with tires made of Oreo cookies, a banana for a fender, a Hershey's Kiss for a headlight and a sub sandwich for a seat. Stewart titled the piece, "Fast Food."

Laced with puns

"There have always been humorous drawings, but what's unique about Don's work is the number of visual puns he can come up with," says James Wood, owner of Lyda Rose Gallery in Homewood. "Don is a highly intelligent man, and I tend to like that extra intelligence. He's capable of talking on any subject. He has a very good sense of humor, and he makes time for the folks around him."

Stewart has more than 100 pieces in his repertoire, from a high-heeled shoe composed of musical instruments (titled "Shoe Horn") to a piano of baby rattles and toys ("Baby Grand") to a cowboy boot of snakes ("Snake's Kin Boot.") And then there's the rhinoceros made of Tupperware products, titled "Rhino-plasty."

Stewart's art career was interrupted when he became a full-time dad to his two sons while his first wife, a doctor, was at work. By then they were living in North Carolina. As his marriage foundered, Stewart went back full-force into art.

The family remained close, even with the divorce. Four years ago, Stewart and his second wife, painter and illustrator Sue Ellen Brown, moved to Birmingham, as did his children and his first wife. "It works for us," he says.

Here, his drawings became increasingly popular as his old buddies from the medical school discovered his work. Dr. Robert Bourge, chairman of the division of cardiovascular disease at the UAB Heart & Vascular Center, commissioned "Cardiology," which became a poster celebrating the center's opening.

The Medical School Alumni Association had Stewart create an image of the new hospital building showing all the surgical disciplines in the actual spot each is found in the building. That led to another commission, from the office of the dean of medicine, depicting the history of medical education in Alabama.

The picture's centerpiece is the Jefferson Tower, which stands in the heart of the UAB medical complex and is perhaps the most recognizable of all the medical buildings. Filling in that outline are hundreds of smaller images and characters, from the Creek Indian healers to prominent 19th century black practitioner Dr. Arthur M. Brown to former medical school dean and department chair Tinsley Harrison to renowned heart surgeon James K. Kirklin.

"I spent six months just on research for that one," Stewart says. He was particularly impressed with the achievements of Harrison, author of a medical textbook still in use today. He teamed with the alumni association and the dean's office to raise money toward establishing an endowed chair in Harrison's honor. Sales of a limited edition series of the "Jefferson Tower" print, signed by many of the featured physicians, or their descendants, have so far raised more than $20,000 toward that cause.

"Don is a very philanthropic guy," says Elaine Chambless, executive director of the Medical Alumni Association. "I don't know what we'd do without him."

Stewart serves on the alumni association board and also edits its newsletter. "I've never met anyone like him," Chambless says. "He's an interesting combination of a doctor's brain and an artist's temperament."

Stewart's father, J.L. Stewart, former administrator of the University of Alabama Health Services Foundation, finally came to appreciate his son's work after watching him sell print after print at a local show. "My father did the math and realized the boy could make a living at this," Stewart says.

Depending on the complexity of the piece, a Stewart original now ranges from about $2,500 to $4,000 or more. Individual nonmedical commissions remain his bread and butter, such as the piece he did for Jill Lovik when her son, Ken, got married in Chicago. Stewart drew the Drake Hotel, site of the reception, and filled it with images from the wedding and from the bride and groom's careers.

"Ken likes playing ball, and Jen likes going to the theater, and Don put that in there, too," Lovik, a Birmingham homemaker, says.

"We approached Don with this idea and he just took off with it. We had the picture at the wedding, and people were just amazed. They said, `Where did you get this and who did it?' And I said, `This amazing artist in Birmingham.'"