Pun Intended

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."