Ex-surgeon left medicine to explore life as an artist

The Birmingham News - South     12/04/02

News staff writer

Don Stewart says he never questioned his decision 16 years ago to walk out of the Mayo Clinic, turning his back on a surgical career, to pursue drawing.
The Homewood resident now speaks of his career change to students, who usually reach a different conclusion.

"They all say `Boy, you should've stayed a surgeon, you would be a millionaire by now,'" Stewart said. "Especially the high school kids, they say, `Boy, you're an idiot.'"

Stewart, 43, returned last year to the Birmingham area and opened DS Art Gallery last summer. The Crescent Avenue studio in Homewood displays his works and paintings by his wife, Sue Ellen Brown.
Stewart also runs a marketing business, which helps pay the bills, and includes areas such as corporate design and communication and Web design.

Most of Stewart's works are intricate ball point pen drawings that revolve around a single or many puns.

One is "Fast Food," a motorcycle composed of images such as a waffle with a dollop of butter for the front wheel and a hoagie sub for the seat. 

"I draw big pictures, but they're made up of little things," he said.

Probably Stewart's most noteworthy drawing is a golf bag drawing that contains puns on golf terms such as a shuttlecock for a birdie and a playing card hand in one suit for a "set of clubs."
He's currently drawing the pencil outline of a stagecoach that is titled "All the World's a Stage," encompassing Broadway themes.

"They make me happy. They seem to make other people happy," Stewart said. "And I haven't lost a patient in 17 years."

For a while, his father wasn't among those ebullient about the career change. "Daddy was not happy," J.L. "Jim" Stewart said. "I thought he was nuts."

Jim Stewart, who retired in 1994 as director of the UAB Health Services Foundation, said his son wanted to be a doctor since he was 5, when his mother died of cancer. "He was an interesting child to raise, especially as a single parent," Jim Stewart said from his home in Oklahoma City, Okla., "a very curious mind."

Stewart and his older brother, David, a Cingular software engineer in Texas, spent their childhood on projects such as a hot air balloon and fireworks. "He was interested in everything," Jim Stewart said, "always has been and still is."

A self-described "higher education brat," Stewart was born in Fayetteville, Ark., and traveled with his family from college outposts until arriving in Birmingham when he was 16. After graduating from Vestavia Hills High School in 1977, Stewart earned his bachelor's degree from Birmingham-Southern College in 1981 and his medical degree from UAB in 1985.

At Birmingham-Southern, he took an art class as a counter to a load of science classes. One of his projects was a pencil portrait of Picasso.

"It was the first assignment that used both sides of my brain," Stewart said.

After college and medical school, Stewart landed an internship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and the demanding routine. While in Rochester, he won a newspaper writing contest and a clinic-sponsored Valentine's Day poetry-writing contest.

"By the end of the year, I hated being a doctor, loved the patient care, but there was no time for patient care. I was running around doing paperwork and standing in an operating room," he said. "At the end of the year, I was finished with my one-year obligation there and just left. I've been drawing pictures ever since."

Stewart tells dumbfounded high school students to pursue a subject that returns satisfaction.

"The point is it doesn't matter what you do," Stewart said. "Do what makes you happy."

Validation of his choice came a few years after the change, about this time of the year, when one of his illustrations made the big time. 

"The `Golf Bag' drawing was put on a jigsaw puzzle and sold in a J.C. Penney Christmas catalog," Stewart said. "That's how I found out that the J.C. Penney Christmas catalog carries just as much weight as the "New England Journal of Medicine."