Cornea Trans-plant, drawing by Don Stewart
"Remember, your standards for excellence are already unreasonably high, or you wouldn't be trying to achieve the impossible - trying to make art. After all, art, to most people, is simply another form of magic. Like everything else, being a good magician takes practice. Fortunately, the best part about practicing drawing is...you get to draw while you're doing it." Don Stewart, dsart.com

student visual puns from a few years ago; clay
A long time ago, before I started teaching, I discovered this wonderful artist named Don Stewart who made these exquisite drawings of big things made out of little things. They were playful, creative images that featured visual word puns. I saved these pictures and later would bring them out when I needed a little extra creative push for my middle school students. 

These beautiful, detailed drawings inspired my students to draw funny little cartoon images of lightning bugs made from electric outlets, or bearded grandfather clocks holding canes, or horned deviled eggs with funny faces. The kids love to experiment with humor, and we would use these images in all kinds of ways, from clay sculptures to plaster carvings to prints. What made these lessons even better was when I read that Don Stewart was a doctor at one time, and left the medical field to eventually become (gasp!) an ARTIST! 

This year, I discovered this wonderful artist lives in a neighboring town and actually visits schools! I invited him to speak to my students, and he came not once, but twice, and then agreed to do an interview. My students were incredibly inspired by his story, and so was I. 

The following interview took place via email in February of 2016.........
ID Badge, Don Stewart

When did you realize you were an artist?
It's hard to say when I actually began to think of myself as an artist. I knew I enjoyed making art as far back as kindergarten, but the lesson then always was, 'This is play time, but now we have to put down our art supplies and get back to work.' Being an artist meant that you wore smocks and berets and stood in front of an easel looking at your thumb - or worse, you hung out in coffee houses smoking cigarettes and nurturing questionable relationships. Even when I found myself drawing full time, it was mainly a diversion, something I was doing while I waited to start some kind of a new career. 
People would ask me, “What do you do?”, and I would reply, “Well, I used to be a doctor, but I’m drawing a lot right now.” At least a year of full-time drawing went by before I started thinking of myself as an artist.

What was your experience like when you took art classes in school? 
The reason I signed up for art class in junior high school was that it kept me out of Physical Education. PE was an awful experience for a small, skinny kid with a big mouth. Offered the choice between athletics, music, or art, and having little aptitude for the other two subjects, I chose art. I enjoyed the class immensely. It was almost like getting a grade for recess.
I actually looked forward to continuing art in high school, but the options were few. Science and math were taught in one end of the building, art in the other, and class schedules overlapped. There was just no way to schedule art between biology and chemistry classes. There was no chance to substitute art for physical education, either. I satisfied my PE requirement by taping ankles on the football team, and sweeping out the locker room. I wouldn’t get another chance to draw until college.

Quack, The Artist In His Former Profession, Don Stewart
What was the catalyst for the decision to change careers?
I did not thrive in the medical school environment. I imagined medical training would be a wonderful adventure in learning, and the creative application of knowledge to alleviate suffering. It was anything but that. (Consider instead a cookbook a foot thick. Make that two feet thick. You are responsible for memorizing all of the recipes in that book, in order, and regurgitating them on command, without deviation, in public, under threat of immediate humiliation.) Things were tenuously manageable until residency, when all of my free time disappeared, especially my creative time. I really couldn't live without that. It should not be construed that I made a considered decision to leave medical training for another career. Rather, I decided to get out, and find a new direction once I was free from the hospital.  

How did your family respond when you told them?
No one in my family was pleased, which is perfectly understandable. They all tried to make sense of what could have possibly come over me, and since they knew that doctors lived charmed lives, I had to be crazy to give up on that dream. Other common default conclusions involved various scenarios of drug addiction or demonic possession. 

Trombone, Don Stewart

How hard was it to leave the medical field and start up a business in visual art? 
Leaving was the easy part. Trying to find employment with a medical degree proved all but impossible, since I was grossly overqualified for most jobs, and utterly un-qualified for any profession other than medicine. Fortunately, I had the benefit of an undergraduate degree from a liberal arts college to fall back on. That broad educational foundation gave me the tools and the confidence to set up my own business, and move ahead. 

Handle With Care, Chiropractic, by Don Stewart

How long does it take you to create one drawing?
The average project takes about a month to create, including research, head-scratching and actual drawing time. That last part takes about an hour per image; if there are 50 component images in one of my designs, then that picture took at least 50 hours to draw – after the design was worked out.

What is your favorite drawing you have made? 
My favorite drawing is always the one I’m working on at any given time, though some of the finished ones have special appeal. They may just be better designs, or the drawings turn out closer to my original idea, and are more satisfying artistically. Some are more popular, get more attention, or sell better than others. Some of my favorites may not be drawn very well, but are just fun pictures. They make me smile.

What hobbies do you most enjoy?
I have fun digging in the dirt, gardening and composting and the little bit of landscaping you can do by pushing rocks together and shoveling things around them. It's fun to see things grow in unusual places, in tree stumps, for example, or the corners of parking lots. 

What makes your artwork so unique?
My drawings are verbally based, meaning that they are most often pictures of puns. They are also compositions of multiple images that come together into the shape of a larger object. Finally, they are primarily black and white compositions, owing to the fact that they are drawn with a ballpoint pen. This combination of features, the black ink, the intricate, related compositions, and the silly humor, make for a recognizable set of characteristics that describe my body of work. Why is this kind of artwork unusual? Probably because no one else is foolish enough to spend so much time delivering one-liners on paper. I certainly didn't invent the process, and lots of artists do one or two of these at some point in their development, but these are very labor- and time-intensive projects. Why waste a month on a single design when you can paint a half-dozen canvases in a day? 
Why is this collection unique? One art professor told me that these drawings have 'an element of time' in them. It takes a while to puzzle everything out of them, like listening to music, or reading a story. This element is not always present in two dimensional art. Ordinarily you look at a picture for a moment and move along to the next one. If I've done my job right, the payoff for that investment is a smile and a little unexpected brainwave activity. Sadly, thinking and smiling seldom occur together in our society. Hopefully these silly pictures will do a little to change that.

Marines, drawing by Don Stewart
Do you feel that your philosophy relates to Andy Warhol, putting art into the masses' hands? (The illustration art of Norman Rockwell helped to bolster the collective morale of our country, it was "art for everyone".....)
While most of my artwork is pure fun, some pieces are created with specific purposes in mind, like raising funds, or awareness for a particular cause. If my style of art can serve a purpose greater than a shared giggle, I’m delighted and honored to try and help.  But it’s really more like helping someone change a tire, or maybe raise a barn. I m not trying to affect the collective consciousness. That’s way above my pay grade.

How many books did you read in preparation for the Marine Corp drawing? How long did it take to complete? 
I read about a dozen books on Marine Corps history and training, mostly focusing on a single volume written by official Marine historians. I also traveled to Virginia three times to visit the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and interviewed a number of Marines from privates to generals, to find out what it was like to wear the uniform, and live the tradition of the Corps. I took notes and made sketches for a year or more, then spent six months putting together the design for the drawing. The drawing process itself took three or four months.

How difficult was it to publish your first book? How did you learn to write books? 
The secret to writing books is simple: You do it one page at a time. For my first book, I did it one picture at a time: One drawing per page, with a few words that described each picture. It was easy to come up with the text. I just wrote down the same things I said while trying to explain the drawings at art shows.
It’s really not difficult to publish a book. All you need is enough material to fill the space between two covers, and a lot of money to pay the printer. (It also helps to have a way to sell the books after they’re made. Too many beginning authors wind up with boxes of books, and nothing to do with them.) 
Writing a story book is the same as telling a story to your friends, only you have to be a little more careful with the spelling, and the punctuation. (You will definitely hear about every grammatical error that makes it into print.)
As for the financial side of publishing, we certainly didnt have enough money on hand to print a thousand books. We got that by begging - er,  selling copies of the books ahead of time. For the first one we used e-mail and postcards to get the word out. The second time we also used a crowdfunding campaign online. In both cases, our established network of friends, family and reliable art customers came through for us.

Toadstool, Don Stewart
What is the most important bit of advice you would give someone who wants to sell their artwork?
Put a price tag on it, and don’t get discouraged. 
If the current work doesn't sell, make more, and put a price tag on that, too. Stubbornness carries a lot of weight in the marketplace, as long as you’re smart-stubborn. Listen to your customers, compare your pricing to other artists, and always work to improve. Eventually you will find a balance that works.

You visit schools, nursing homes, and create art specifically to raise money for various charities. How would you like to be remembered?
I guess I would like to be remembered, period, though I never really thought about my art in those terms. My pictures are simply standing jokes, little bits of humor that can be picked up and shared, and hopefully tickle people's funny bones. I hope they stick around for a while after I'm gone. That would be legacy enough. 

Computer, Don Stewart

Have you considered writing a book for art teachers? You are a fabulous educator yourself! You have a way of breaking things down to their simplest forms and describing how you did it. You have a gift! I think teachers are some of the most generous professionals, but you are right up there, too! 
Oh, my, no. Not being an art teacher, I wouldn’t know where to begin. The things you have to do to keep kids busy for a semester would keep me running for years!

photo credit; Alabama State Council On the Arts

Thank you, Don Stewart, for generously sharing your story and your art with us! Thank you for encouraging our students to follow their dreams! 

Teachers, if you don't live near the Birmingham, Alabama area, you can still bring Don to into your classroom...here is a wonderful presentation from Dr. Stewart for a group of students at the Alabama State Visual Arts Achievement Awards: 
(from the 11 minute mark to the 37 minute mark)

............Just for fun, here are some student comments about Dr. Don's visit: 

"I enjoyed how Mr. Stewart explained all of the pictures and the names of each one for example the car was called the bug so he made it out of bugs. I learned how to make my pictures better now because of Mr. Stewart." 7th grader

"I learned that as an artist facial hair is important." 8th grader

"I really enjoyed our guest speaker. He was really lively and fun and you could really tell that he enjoyed what he was doing. I love seeing people be so happy about what he liked to do. He was very informative but also very layed back. I enjoy people like him quite a bit. He was extremely passionate and opinionated. I liked him a lot and the presentation made my day." 8th grader

"I learned that any person can quit a good job and become what you want to be." 8th grader

"The speaker was very entertaining because he never stop telling jokes and he was all about us laughing and having a good time. I also like the fact that his pictures were made of certain objects to go with the joke like fast food. It was a bike that goes fast and it was made out of food. He gave a lot of good information if you wanted to be an artist." 8th grader

"I learned that you need to be funny and polite to get money for your artwork. I liked that he has so many facts and that he was funny too when he talked about his artwork. He needed to improve his brain to make himself remember things." 8th grader

"I thought very well of our guest speaker. A lot of the things he said I agree with and was very relatable to. I also like how he liked my artwork. I would like to see him again." 8th grade

"He told us his life story and told us how to make a business. Follow your dreams, that's what he said." 8th grader

"The guest speaker was funny indeed. He helped me prepare for my future and told us wonderful stories. I learned that it is good for you to save your drawings even if they suck. I didn't know that you could spend $1000 on copies of drawings and make up that money and even more. Selling drawings seems like a really cool idea to make money doing what you love to do." 8th grader.

"I learned that everything doesn't have to be done in color. I enjoyed not having to do work and also getting to see professional art work." 8th grader

"I learned that knowing how to do one simple thing can allow you to do much more you think you can even do. I enjoyed the fact that Mr. Stewart was silly and told us that we just need to try a little harder each time. He encouraged us to do the things we want even if it's something totally different."

"I learned from Dr. Stewart that whatever you enjoy doing you should do it! Also, I learned that it takes years of practice to draw the simplest objects. I enjoyed looking at his artwork and knowing how long it took him to create it. I liked everything about his visit!"

"Conversely, at those times when the soul tends to be choked by material disbelief, art becomes purposeless and talk is heard that art exists for art’s sake alone…It is very important for the artist to gauge his position aright, to realize that he has a duty to his art and to himself, that he is not king of the castle but rather a servant of a nobler purpose. He must search deeply into his own soul, develop and tend it, so that his art has something to clothe, and does not remain a glove without a hand. The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning." 
Wassily Kandinsky

"You see, I love what I do. My job (loosely defined, I'll admit) is to show up at my studio whever I feel like it, think funny thoughts, and put them onto paper. That's pretty much it." Don Stewart
Recycle, Don Stewart

Don Stewart's Awards, Publications, and other Accolades:

Alabama Arts Radio Series Interview, Alabama State Council on the Arts,  May 2015

Guest Speaker, 2015 Alabama State Visual Arts Achievement Program Award Ceremony

2015 Award of Merit, Arts Alive, Douglas-Kennedy Center for the Arts, Florence, AL 

2014 Inaugural TPCAC Lecturer/Exhibit, Johnson Center for the Arts, Troy, AL

Named Artist to Collect by Arabella magazine, Cananda  2014

Self-published autobiography Past Medical History  2013

3rd Place Nash Prize (National) for Vulcan Review cover art, UAB Phi Alpha Theta Historical Honor Society, 2013

Art Editor (Honorary), The Journal of irreproducible Results, San Mateo, CA 

Self-published hardbound coffee table book, DS Art: The Visual Humor of Don Stewart  2005

CASE Grand Award for Cover ArtUA Medical Alumni Bulletin, Fall 2004

Featured Artist, Breda Jazz Festival, Breda, Holland, 2001

My cat Sam likes me

article by Mrs. Anna Nichols

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