Saturday, April 9, 2016

You Can’t Do That

“Who is putting up all of these teensy little drawings?” 

the Professor wanted to know.

He’d interrupted his erratic pacing mid-stride, in front of twenty or so versions of a person sitting in a chair, all from different angles, of all different sizes, taped to the wall in a haphazard row.

He grabbed the smallest picture from the line, a plain sheet of typing paper with a two-inch-high figure floating dead center. “I see one of these at every critique. Who is responsible for them?”

I raised my hand.

“You? What’s the matter - are you afraid to make a full sized rendering like everyone else?” Murmured chuckles sprinkled about the room.

“No, sir,” I answered. “It’s just hard for me to finish a large drawing in the time allowed, so I make several quick sketches, and put the best one up for discussion.”

“No one else seems to have trouble making big drawings.” he said, pausing to let the obvious conclusion sink in. “What’s your problem?”

“It’s not a problem, really, just a limitation of the medium,” I replied.

“Really? What medium are you using?”

“A ballpoint pen,” I said, holding up my trusty Bic for him to see.

Not a legitimate artist's medium.

“Seriously?” he scolded. “You’re using a ballpoint pen in an art class?”

Of course I was using a ballpoint pen in an art class. Why wouldn't I? I used ballpoints for every other class: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, History of the English Language. I usually carried at least three of them, color-coding each academic subject with a different combination of black, blue and red ink. The visual difference was quite helpful when it came time to study for exams. Why would this class be any different? 

Here in the Basic Drawing studio, it was the logical choice. I was not an art major. I was just a pre-med who wanted to learn how to draw in one semester – and make an ‘A’ doing it. If I wanted to learn the techniques of rendering forms and textures in an efficient manner, I needed to streamline the process, and focus on what I already knew how to do.
Until that day, my sketches 
had consistently elicited 
encouraging comments.

Charcoal, India ink, Conte´crayon… these were media that required an extra learning curve, additional time to master, not to mention an additional cash outlay at the college bookstore. True, they offered the advantage of covering large swaths of real estate at a single stroke, but that ‘advantage’ also meant I would have to buy large tablets of drawing paper – another infringement on my nonexistent art supply budget. I already had reams of typing paper collecting dust on my bookshelf.

“I didn’t know that there were size requirements on the assignments, Sir,” I explained. “And you did say that we could use any medium.”

Besides, even though my drawings were small, I felt I had managed to accomplish all of the goals set out for us in every studio exercise, representing form, texture, shading, etc., using my familiar, preferred technique.

Until that day, my sketches had consistently elicited encouraging comments.

He reached down and plucked the instrument from my hand, holding it up for everyone to see. “This is not a legitimate artist’s medium. You can’t make anything of substance with such a skinny black line. I don't want to see it in my studio again.” To underscore his point, he confiscated the offending contraband, freeing me from the temptation ever to use it again.

To his credit, the Professor was not being unduly critical. This was his class; he had every right to expect things to be done his way. And I could understand and appreciate his preferences: the man was a painter, who preferred to work on large-scale projects. It was not unusual to see him working on a wall-sized canvas, using a three- or four-inch wide paintbrush. Making artwork on such a miniaturized scale, regardless of detail, must have seemed utterly foreign to him.

Like any reputable instructor, I’m sure he wanted his course to be taken seriously, and probably felt that by refusing to embrace a variety of drawing styles and materials, I would be missing the opportunity to wring the full potential from this class.

Lesson learned, I reached into my pocket, and started constructing the day’s new drawing assignment using the skinny black lines of a No. 2 pencil. It felt good to be a legitimate student again.

Much to the Professor’s delight, I spent the rest of the semester exploring the monotonal worlds of graphite, charcoal, and ink wash, with illustrative side routes into magic marker, and creative photocopying. Once I had distanced myself from the wretched, divisive ballpoint issue, it became clear that my grade point average would be back on track as well.

It was perhaps understandable then that I did not tell my new mentor about the several drawing projects I still had underway in my dorm room, where I struggled on my own to work out the graphic potential of skinny ballpoint lines.

One of these pieces, a whimsical study of a cartoon ant on crumpled beer can, seemed especially pleasing, and worthy, I thought, of submission to the campus literary magazine. The student editorial staff liked it too, and awarded my drawing First Place in the visual arts category – an honor that included publication in the journal, and a cash prize as well.

Twenty-five dollars may not sound like a lot of money today, and it probably wasn’t very much then, either, but to a college student in the early 1980’s it meant a full tank of gas, a six-pack of beer, and at least one dinner date at a decent restaurant.

It also meant that a ballpoint pen was capable of producing artwork that had audience appeal, and real earning potential. I had no idea how important that realization would become in the years following my brief tour through medical training.

Years later, I was fortunate enough to re-make my acquaintance with my former art professor, this time on even friendlier terms, both personally and professionally. My career as a ballpoint artist was rounding out its second decade, and the studio was producing a picture book to mark the anniversary. He was gracious enough to write the introduction for the project.

Of course he took full credit for my artistic career:

Edward Hill, in his ‘Language of Drawing’, stated that the student mirrors his teaching – often through opposition.  When Don Stewart was a student in one of my drawing courses at Birmingham-Southern College many years ago, he was chided for the ‘improper use’ of a ballpoint pen.  Illustrating Mr. Hill’s theory perfectly, Stewart has investigated, tested, and polished the applications of the once-lowly instrument – seeking a new potential rather than settling for the ordinary.  Feathery lines and nubby textures supplement his definitive lights and darks, enticing the viewer further to seek their objects’ whimsical presence.  The visual puns of his devious mind are delivered with a wit and intelligence seldom seen.  As I have half-jokingly related to co-appreciators of his work, I feel personally responsible for his success.

Robert Shelton,
Professor of Art
Birmingham-Southern College
Birmingham, Alabama

I couldn’t agree more.

The Visual Humor of Don Stewart

Friday, April 1, 2016

Bright Future For LED Fireworks

Art Studio Revolutionizes 
Pyrotechnic Industry

Birmingham, Alabama
1 April 2016

In a breakthough that industry insiders are calling the ‘most significant advance since gunpowder’, a local art studio has developed new technologies that may literally push the pyrotechnic industry to new heights.

The DS Art Studio announced today its latest artistic collaboration with Volatech Pyrotechnics Corporation and Lux BioSystems to develop an entirely new line of electronic fireworks, incorporating LED light sources and bioluminescence into traditional explosive charges.

Safer than conventional fireworks, these professional grade display pyrotechnics require far less dynamic capacity, since the explosive charge is needed only to deliver the display package into the air, and subsequently disperse the lightweight electronic contents.

“The flying chips then convert the kinetic energy of high-speed movement into brilliant sparkles of light,” says Don Stewart, the artist in charge of the project. “The colors are far brighter, and offer a much wider spectrum of hues over the old chemical combustion fireworks.”

The miniaturized LED displays last longer, too, as the panels can be configured into a wing or propeller shape, much like maple seeds, which allows each of the powerful, tiny light sources to twirl slowly, shimmering all the way to the ground. 

Advanced versions of these high-tech skyrockets may also carry ultra-thin microprocessors, containing rudimentary guidance programs and proximity sensors, allowing each light source to assume discrete positions relative to its neighbors. These so-called ‘Smartworks’ will be capable of forming complex patterns such as the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, or portraits of past or future presidents, completely revolutionizing the Fourth of July experience.

“We are already having informal conversations with a major film producer,” Stewart said. “They want to discuss the possibility of programming our Smartworks to display popular characters in the sky over their worldwide chain of theme parks.”

He was unable to give further details due to client confidentiality.

Maintaining the safety factor all the way to the ground, the airborne lighting components cease to function within seconds of landing, and are made of processed organic materials that are completely degradable and non-toxic.  


Donald B. Stewart
Chief Visual Humorist
The DS Art Studio Gallery
2805 Crescent Avenue
Birmingham, AL 35209

Monday, July 13, 2015

On Being Part Of The Problem

Yes, I’m guilty.

I’m a Southerner by birth, just not so much by sentiment, any more. If that makes me two-faced, or a turncoat, or a carpetbagger, well, so be it.

When I moved to Vestavia Hills, Alabama in 1975, I left behind the rumblings of racial unrest in Oklahoma, where a small town black minority had grown tired of the legacy of Jim Crow that still permeated the culture there, and made it clear that the promise of civil equality must move closer to reality.

A sixteen-year-old enrolling in my junior year at VHHS, I was therefore amazed at the lack of racial tension in my new school. It took a while for me to realize the reason: that the student body and the surrounding community were overwhelmingly white and affluent. What students of color there were had to be bussed in from miles away, in order to satisfy federal guidelines of racial equality.

Even in those days there were occasional objections to the use of the Confederate battle flag and “Rebel Man” as school emblems. These concerns were routinely dismissed then, as now, on the grounds of ‘tradition’. They had nothing to do with slavery, or oppression. Even our black athletes performed proudly under the colors and symbols of the Confederacy.

But our country is waking up, and in it’s wake (sic), many of us are begrudgingly owning up to the understanding that our long-held protections of privilege are wearing thin.

I myself am the product of slave owners. My twice-great-grandfather once held some twenty human beings as chattels, listed so in the census of 1860, making him at the time a man of no small means. By 1870, of course, his material wealth had been reduced to whatever he and his sons could load into a wagon, their lot degraded from wealthy Alabama landowners to hardscrabble Arkansas dirt farmers, struggling to feed their own. Whatever privilege they enjoyed by way of the traditions of Alabama was long forgotten by the time my branch of the family returned to the state a hundred years later.

Yes, I knew that there were racists in Alabama. I had encountered them growing up in Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. The echoes of the Sixteenth Street bombings still resonated in 1970's Birmingham. I did not think that I, or my Vestavia Hills classmates, were among them. If Confederate emblems appeared on my yearbook, that did not mean that I embraced them, or the actual traditions that they represented. They were part of the past, employed as any mascot would be, selectively representing perceived strengths, while ignoring inherent weaknesses.

As I grew older, and the false philosophical dichotomy of image and tradition became more apparent, I still believed it was the business of the Vestavia Hills community to decide how their school would be portrayed. We Southerners, traditionally, do not take kindly to outsiders’ opinions, and if some folks didn't like our school mascot, they didn't have to come to our football games.

Still, given enough time, I had hoped that the community of Vestavians would recognize the mixed message they were projecting to their students and to the world, and might one day make the inevitable change for a more appropriate mascot.

But the momentum of tradition is strong, and when the Vestavia Hills band approached me several years ago to help them with a fundraising campaign, I was more than happy to assist. I designed for them my own version of the Rebel Man, composed of images related to academics, sports, music – and the Confederate battle flag. I was proud of my work, and the fact that it allowed me to contribute meaningfully to my high school alma mater. It was easy to wrap myself in the happy memories of a high school student, and to faithfully represent the culture that had quite literally educated me, and had done so very well.

But education is an ongoing process. The steady accumulation of information cannot help but lead to a re-examination of old beliefs. So it has been with my growing awareness of the discord between our traditional cultural biases, and the daily realities they represent. The image of a stereotypical plantation owner – my double-great-grandfather, if you will – is no longer a benign gent who can rally the troops in Vestavia without grossly offending people there and elsewhere who clearly understand the historic underpinnings of that tradition.

It is for this reason that I have chosen to remove the Rebel Man from the DS Art catalog. 

I will honor my contract with the VHHS, however I will no longer sell “Rebel Man” prints from our studio, nor will I authorize a reprint of the drawing. Neither will I accept any portion of the proceeds from sales of existing copies.

I can imagine great-great-granddaddy Stewart rolling over in his grave just about now. And that’s okay. 

It may be his tradition, but it’s not his picture.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

You Should Draw A…

“You need to draw a picture of a giraffe." 

"You’d sell a million of those, you know. There are a lot of giraffe lovers out there. If you drew a picture of a giraffe, I’d buy a copy.”

“If you drew a picture of a hot air balloon, I’d buy a copy.”

 “If you drew a picture of the dry cleaning industry…”

Ark - Sue Ellen Brown
“… of a lighthouse...”
“… of a pick-up truck...”
“… of a runner...”
“… of a turtle...”

“If you drew a picture of a 1964 Mustang convertible, I’d buy a copy.”
… … …

I know, and I would love to do that for you. I truly would. Here’s why it’s probably not going to happen, at least not within the reasonable time frame that you expect it to:

No, it’s not because I’m some artistic purist who only follows the dictates of his own muse. In fact, I’m quite happy to listen to your suggestions. I’ll even write them down for future consideration. Chances are, your picture is already on the list.

Yes, I have a running list of  (wait, let’s check, just to be sure) twenty-three major drawing projects in progress at the moment, with a couple dozen more under consideration at any given time.

That doesn't count the six drawings I’ve completed and checked off the list already this year, after a mammoth effort that has nearly doubled my annual output of new composite designs. Nor does it include more than thirty line drawings I’ve completed for contract clients since January.

Am I complaining about being overworked? (Artists are good at that, you know. We’re a lazy bunch by nature. Ask anybody.) Nope, not this time. You see, I love what I do. My job (loosely defined, I’ll admit) is to show up at my studio whenever I feel like it, think funny thoughts, and put them onto paper. That’s pretty much it.

The economics of art 
are pretty straightforward.

The hard part comes when I have to decide which funny thoughts make the grade to become a new picture, and which new idea warrants the weeks of research and planning and practice (I get a little rusty between projects) that it will take to build a concept into a working sketch, and finally into one of my standard composite drawings. This process takes time – figure one hour of focused endeavor for every item in a drawing – time that is not spent on traveling to and from art shows, talking with customers, taking orders over the phone, or packaging and delivering prints to the post office.

Time, in other words, that is not spent making money.

The economics of art are pretty straightforward: If you don't get paid to make pictures today, you don’t get to make any more pictures tomorrow.

So, in order to insure that I will be able to enjoy creating silly, pun-filled drawings for another year, I have to pick my projects very carefully.

Every year I try to finish at least three new pieces: One for the market (things that people have requested – your “You Should Draw…” list), one for the experience (something that will stretch my technical ability), and one for me, simply because the idea makes me giggle. The plan is that at least one of these will capture a big enough slice of the art market to justify its own existence, and hopefully pave the way for the next round of creative activity – provided that it can also repair the damage left by the two or three really fun projects that didn't manage to pay for themselves last year.

Which doesn’t always happen.

So, let’s say that your lighthouse idea is a great one. (And it is, I can assure you. There lots of lighthouse fans out there.) Let’s further assume that I have been able to come up with enough light-related puns and seashore type stuff to pile up into the shape of a lighthouse. (I haven’t yet, since I always get tripped up conceptually somewhere between light switch and light beer.) Let’s even convince ourselves that the particular light house design I have chosen to build looks enough like the structures at Cape Lookout or Hatteras or Bodie Island (as opposed to the ones at Roanoke River or Frying Pan Shoals) to convince the casual observer that this is in fact a picture of a lighthouse, and not a beach cottage.

After all of that comes together, experience tells me that it will take at least a month to design and draw this new picture for you. That’s a month’s worth of rent and groceries, clothes and car repair and garden supplies and movie tickets that won't be paid for if all of my time is spent on this luminous project. Oh, and unless you were keen on purchasing the original drawing ahead of time, I’m also going to have to come up with the couple of thousand dollars it will take to turn this new artwork into the $20 fine art print you have assured me that you want to buy.

(Of course if you ARE interested in commissioning this bright idea for its full retail value, give me a call. I’ll push everything else onto the back burner and jump right on it – just as soon as your deposit check clears the bank. Really. Call me.)

So, unless I have the bills paid well in advance (a welcome, but not too common occurrence), the main thing that will motivate me to get up and flip through my standing file of Works in Progress, or launch into an entirely new project is the promise of a significant short-term payoff, involving at least enough money to keep me and the Missus fed and housed for a few weeks, and keep our printer happy.

If any of those things don't work out, chances are your very good idea for a new picture will stay right where it is: on the To Do list.

Don't worry. I’ll get around to it one day. One of these days when I’m not on the road, and not packing up orders, and not writing my next blog entry, I’ll settle myself down and get right to work on drawing your picture.

You just wait and see.