For this doctor-turned-artist, the marriage of bad jokes and good drawingscreates a lively livelihood
by Ann A. Allen Charlotte Magazine June 1998
A man must give account at the Day of Judgment for every Good and Permissible Thing which he might have Enjoyed, but did Not. — A Talmudic saying, displayed in Don Stewart's studio.
From the outside, Don Stewart's studio doesn't look like much. He works in one of those generic professional buildings off Carmel Road in Pineville, and when you walk down the quiet hallway you could be visiting somebody like an accountant or a therapist.
But when you pass through his door, you enter another world altogether. All around the walls hang his whimsical pen-and-ink drawings -a fish, an ant, a jukebox, a Volkswagen Beetle. And once again things aren't exactly as they seem: The Beetle consists of butterflies and a beehive and an astonishing array of other insects designed to form the body of the car. A caterpillar dangles from the antenna; a flight of bees trails from the exhaust pipe. The other sketches, too, have been drawn from wacky stuff- some working a simple theme (a Harley made of fast food), others presenting elaborate visual puns (a golf bag including twelve clubs from a deck of cards-"the ace is in the hole.")
Stewart wears a blond beard, blue denim, and clean, white cross trainers. A thirty-eight-year-old artist with mild overtones of the 1960s, he serves homegrown mint tea in handmade white mugs. But his office reveals another surprise: a framed medical degree (University of Alabama, 1985) alongside his first composite drawing (portrait of Picasso). Perhaps the clearest clues to the real Don Stewart hang in the hallway that connects his gallery with an office and workroom. The walls display fancy calligraphy and little printed messages:
If at first you do succeed, try not to act surprised. Security is mostly superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. (Helen Keller) Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be Chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish to the crowd. (The I Ching)
Don Stewart takes risks. Not in terms of climbing mountains or BASE jumping, but rather in terms of the big things: His career. His role with his children. His life, you might say. His goal? Enjoying every day.
He originally set out on a more traditional path for a bright young man. The son of a peripatetic college administrator who finally settled down in Birmingham, Stewart graduated from Birmingham Southern and the University of Alabama School of Medicine and completed his internship in surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. But somewhere along the way he discovered he was miserable. And that wasn't good enough.
"I asked myself when was the last time I was happy. And I had to go back four years, to my art classes," he says. He had taken a few art classes in undergraduate school, including the one in which he drew the Picasso as an assignment. "The professor said I would never amount to anything." The professor was wrong.
Stewart tried his hand at drawing composite pictures of historic buildings in Minnesota. He drew St. Mary's Hospital, for instance, built from medical gear. His prints quickly sold for $50 each, and he thought, "Could it really be this easy? Could I really do this?" It was, and he did, though he soon moved away from drawing buildings to creating more capricious caricatures. Those sold even better. He made enough on a commission for an arts supply store to open his first studio in 1987. Now he works full time as an artist, spending a couple weekends each month at markets such as Charlotte's Southern Spring Show, where he recently set up a booth and held court with folks who love both puns and his quirky black-and-white drawings. He also sells his work through local stores, including FastFrame and The Artful Dodger. For awhile his designs were available on T-shirts at Natural Wonders, and recently the Great American Puzzle Factory began producing his designs nationally on jigsaw puzzles.
"His work just reaches everybody," says FastFrame owner Barbara Shaper. "I usually have a crowd standing around his stuff. The one that's fast food, since I put those in the window now I have Harley customers that I never thought I would have. He has such a sense of humor, and it really comes through." She sells Stewart’s black-and-white prints unframed for $10 to $80 and colored ones for about $250. "At Christmastime, if we frame one Don Stewart thing a week, I know I've framed twenty."
Does he ever miss medicine? "Not one day," Stewart says. "There are plenty of doctors. The last thing a sick person needs is a doctor who doesn't want to be a doctor." He gestures toward his drafting table. "This is the perfect job for me. If I had the means and the time I'd be a professional college student. So imagine, every day, you come to work and think, 'What's the most fun thing I could study today?... That's what he does.
He starts with an idea -a golf bag, a French horn. "I get the pun first, because that makes me giggle. I think, 'French horn. Cool! French bread, French toast, French kiss. Now how do I put that in there? 'I draw a little Hershey's kiss with 'baiser' coming out of it." He explores his topic, studying in his office library of photographs and research books and dictionaries and especially his thesaurus. He might spend a year learning about his subject-collecting ideas, listing puns. Then he takes another six weeks or so actually drawing-first in pencil, then in black ballpoint.
Though he draws to make people laugh, he's also thoughtful, even philosophical, about his work. "The pictures have the element of time in them," he muses. "TV, you have to stop and watch. Music on the radio, you have to stop and listen. This is two-dimensional artwork that makes you stop and interact. There aren't enough things in life that make you think and smile at the same time. I'm trying to fill the gap."
He keeps track of requests. His fans want a hunter, a trumpet, a ship. He works on those along with his own ideas: A big piano made of grand things. A little piano made of baby things. A flute with a magic mushroom at one end, a magic top hat at the other and most of a magic shop in between. Now he has about a dozen different drawings going, to add to thirty-eight already on the market. (Nine others have been retired.) His creations range from sports items (football helmet, soccer shoe, golf bag) to motor vehicles (airplane, tractor, train) to the animal kingdom (goldfish, fly, lobster, shark) to musical instruments (blues guitar, trombone, saxophone, bagpipes).
Mostly, though, he just has a good time. "My big goal is to have fun, and to share the fun," he says. "I get to study and I get to draw. It's an unstructured environment and my customers are always pleased because it's a preselected market."
After work he gardens, reads, cooks, and plays with his sons, seven-year-old Johnny and four-year-old Davey. He has arranged his schedule so he can pick them up after school and spend each afternoon with them at his house off Park Road in Charlotte, rather than following the usual path of after-school care and limited visitation. He describes himself as a single dad, saying only that he and his wife, also a doctor, have parted ways and he doesn't want to talk about it. It's the only time he looks sad.
"I keep life simple," he says, "It's pretty much going to shows on weekends and when I'm not at shows I'm in a garden somewhere." His garden is simple, too, he says-vegetables and compost. "If I have a big hobby, that's it. I compost and get my friends to compost. It appeals to the biochemist in me. I like to think of what goes on in compost. It's God at work."
Even his art collection is simple: He buys things rendered in black and white. Pottery, calligraphy, original cartoons, block prints. This simple life seems to please him immensely, so he seldom does anything he doesn't want to do "If it's something I don't want to do, I have to be coerced. If I don't want to do it, I don't do it.
"I get paid for doing this," he says, looking around his gallery with a smile. "It beats the heck out of working."
He Finally Hung Out His Shingle
You turn off a wide street in south Charlotte, NC, into a small colonial looking office complex, the professional digs of dentist and orthodontists, therapists and CPA's. Park next to a cozy row of red brick buildings, each labeled conservatively with a shingle out front. This shingle is the artist's only lingering connection to a past life - once it might have read: Donald B. Stewart, General Surgeon. Today it says simply, DS Art.
Come on in. Sunlight pours through a profusion of greenery: vines, violets, orange trees grown from seed, and a seasonal variety of sprouts for the garden - Stewart's other passion. The only other source of color in this black and white artist's shared studio is the work of Don's wife, Sue Ellen Brown, whose paintings in acrylic, oil, and colored pencil light up the otherwise stark surroundings.
Here white desks and drawing boards nudge tall black bookshelves crammed with volumes of reference material. Humorous themes in word and image fill the walls from floor to ceiling, Stewart's own drawings mixed with small framed quotations: 'If at first you do succeed, try not to act too surprised.' 'Beer Then, Done That.' 'Before a person does something truly great, they must look foolish to the crowd.' The stock room is labeled with a picture of the trading floor on Wall Street; the restroom marked by a portrait of W.C. Fields (WC for water closet). Even the thermostat is framed, decorated with a tiny Dr. Seuss cartoon.
Dr. Stewart, clean-shaven in wire-rimmed glasses, wears a button-down shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, looking more the part of a nineties dot com entrepreneur than the stereotypical artist. He sits comfortably, elbow resting on an older model typewriter (only recently replaced by a PC), and responds to a question regarding the future of hand made art in an increasingly electronic world:
"With art - with creativity in general for that matter - it really makes little difference what medium you choose. You get an idea, you want to get it out there, whether you use a pencil, a brush, a computer or a camp stove. We're decidedly lo-tech around here. Cut and paste still means scissors and glue. It may not be glamorous, but for me drawing is simpler, more direct. Head to hand to paper."
Simple does not describe the artist's work, however. Stewart's composite drawings are elaborately planned and carefully executed, often taking months to complete. Dozens of related items pile one on top of the other to create each larger composition. Some follow a simple theme: flowers for the Hummingbird, antiques for an old locomotive. Other drawings are visual puns, the cornerstone of Stewart's art. His Dragonfly is made of dragons - twenty of them. Trombones is a lesson in skeletal anatomy. Fast Food, an edible motorcycle.
"Sometimes they get a little out of hand," Stewart says. He points to the Golf Bag, his most popular piece, and several others, including Ship Shape, and Deer Diary. Each is made up almost entirely of puns. "If they get too complicated, they come with a list of ingredients." For some pictures, the list is absolutely essential. Golf Bag includes a badminton birdie, a mouse trap, and a quarter of a deck of playing cards - all clubs. The remarkable thing is that the final composite image looks like nothing so much as a fully outfitted, well, golf bag.
Paradoxically, the technical success of the designs can sometimes be a disadvantage.
"I often have a hard time getting people to stop and look," says the artist. "At shows, folks will glance at the pictures, and their brain says 'Oh. A bird. A fish.' Then they move on. I try to get them to look again, to find the humor." A second look usually brings a smile, then the questions:
You do these with just a pen? That pen? Are you crazy? Yes. To all three.
Why a pen? I've had a ballpoint pen in my hand since high school. The classes I took required a lot of note taking, and the pen became second nature. Later when I started drawing, I saw no reason to change.
When did you start drawing? Sometime in my premed training I got bored. Bored with lectures and lab work. I needed a change. So I signed up for a basic drawing course.
This was in college? Yes. At Birmingham-Southern. I thought the course would be an easy A.
Was it? Hardly. The class was taught by the head of the Art department, a tough old guy from New York. He told us we had two weeks to drop the course, or get a C on our transcript. This was a real threat to us pre-meds and pre-dents. We counted on a four point average.
So, did you quit? No. It was too much fun. And I learned a lot. Over the course of the semester, the professor, MacMahon was his name, pulled me aside and said I should think about art as a career. He encouraged me to take more courses.
Did you? Yes. Three in all, the basics: drawing, painting, and design.
Your drawings are all black and white. Why no color? The medium. Ballpoint pens represent a rather limited palette, and most colored inks fade over time. For that matter, most black ballpoint ink will fade. I have to be careful which pens I use.
What pens do you use? Papermate.
That's it? Yes. They're good pens. They feel good in my hand. The ink flows smoothly without piling up, and it lasts.
The ink doesn't fade? Right. I have pictures that are twenty years old that still look great. Some others that were drawn with different pens are nearly gone.
Do you ever use a computer? I get asked that all the time - it's quite flattering. I certainly don't use one to draw, don't have the software or the training - or any desire to learn. Recently I have started using the web to research ideas. It's a great resource, but only if you know where to look. The VW home page, for instance, is a lousy place to find images of vintage beetles.
What is your favorite piece? Don't have one. They're like your kids, you know? You love them all, for different reasons. Some pictures work better artistically than others. Some are more successful at capturing my original idea, or at conveying the humor that's intended. Some, you're just glad they're done.
You used to practice medicine? Not really. I used to study medicine. I never practiced on my own.
Medicine to art, it seems like such a major change. What happened? I wanted to be a doctor when I was five years old. That never changed. I loved science, and always enjoyed doing things that made people feel better. In medical school, the notion of actually getting in and fixing the problem was especially appealing. That turned my attention toward surgery.
Working with your hands? Yes.
So why did you quit? I met very few surgeons who were having any fun. That may sound simplistic, but at the time it was an important observation. I trained with a lot of really great people; by the end of residency most of the joy and spontaneity had been beaten out of them. It wasn't very long before I knew that this was not for me. So I finished my intern year, got my license, and said goodbye.
Have you ever regretted it? Not yet.
And now you're having fun. Oh, yes. The best part is, I get to share the fun with so many others, through the pictures.