By Anna Grace Moore
Photos by James and Rachel Culver
The most fearless people in the world are those who not only dare to dream outside the status quo, but also those who discipline themselves to accomplish the impossible. Fear is a construct of the human psyche–one that keeps us “alive,” setting us on a path of complacency and self-assurance.
In some cases, however, fear is a necessary evil because it keeps us tethered to reality. But, to those brave enough to embrace “insanity,” fear is just a paper weight.
Part of growing up means experiencing trials and triumphing from them, too. A lot of these life lessons, though many of them clichés, actually hold truth weighing greater than fear.
One of the most common clichés, “Do something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” ironically is the most truthful of all. No such conundrum is as evident in one’s life as it is for some of the most fearless in society–artists–and dreamers Don Stewart and Sue Ellen Brown can vouch for it.
“Art is a fulfillment of my purpose,” Sue Ellen says. “It’s not always been easy, but I’ve not regretted the challenge.”
Having a career spanning four decades, Sue Ellen says she knew from the time she could talk that she wanted to be an artist. Nothing made her heart sing more than bringing visions into fruition on a blank canvas.
Sue Ellen earned her B.F.A. in Advertising Design from the University of North Texas. After graduating, she worked with renowned artists such as Don Ivan Punchatz–known for his illustrations in “National Geographic,” “Playboy” and “Time”–and later accepted a position as a staff artist at Hallmark, where she designed products’ illustrations.
“One of the nice things about working there is we got to do the entire product line,” Sue Ellen says. “I did everything from gift wrap to greeting cards to ornaments.”
Sue Ellen slowly started building her reputation as a fine artist across the Southeast, designing for clients such as McDonald’s, Denny’s and Pepsi, too. She even illustrated several children’s books as well.
Some of her most notable work can be seen in novels “Time-Life Family Time Bible Stories: The First Christmas,” written by Patricia Daniels; “Gleaming Bright” and “Orphans of the Night,” which were both written by Josepha Sherman; and “Winter’s Child” by Mary K. Whittington.
One of her most proud accomplishments was earning not one but two Paragon Awards from the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations. Sue Ellen’s work was on display in the New York City Society of Illustrators’ Humor Exhibition for some time.
While Sue Ellen’s reputation long precedes her, she credits her husband, Don, for much of her inspiration and “courage to dream big.” Don, funny enough, says it took him about 25 years to find his calling.
Don earned his B.S. in Biology and Art at Birmingham-Southern College “BSC” and later attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham, earning his M.D. After graduating, Don “Dr. Stewart” was chosen for a competitive internship at the Mayo Clinic, where he says his greatest breakthrough was not actually in medicine at all.
While interning at the Mayo Clinic, a nurse asked Don when was the last time he was happy. A little taken aback, Don replied that his last, fleeting memory of happiness was actually drawing composite images–tiny drawings within a larger mind-maze of drawings–in an art class he took at BSC.
“I hated every minute of [medical school] and only by sheer tenacity hung around long enough to pass all of my general exams,” Don says, chuckling. “I got my basic license to practice medicine, and I quit that day. I just didn’t see any reason to even show up again. I was a qualified practitioner of medicine for 15 years and never did anything with it except draw pictures.”
Don, one of the most infamous dreamers of all, quit his profession with many thousands of dollars in student loans and no job–just a dream that he was made for something greater. This dream propelled him to go back to his roots–what made him happy–drawing.
“[This style of drawing] occupied both sides of my brain, and it made my heart sing–and it still does 40 years later,” Don says.
This fulfillment–this taste of happiness–was enough for Don to tailor his career to his artistic aspirations–ones that led him to meet the love of his life at an art show in Dallas, Texas, just a few years after walking out on his medical career for good.
Don and Sue Ellen officially met in 1998 and by 1999, they tied the knot. Sue Ellen moved to North Carolina, where Don and his two children lived, and together, they navigated providing for a family of four on an artist’s dime.
Don was eventually recruited to Birmingham, Alabama, for work, but after six short months, he decided he was not made to climb the corporate ladder. He and Sue Ellen took yet another leap of faith and opened their own art studio, DS Art, in downtown Homewood in 2002.
DS Art was open until the world shut down in 2020, and due to rent increasing post-pandemic, the couple relocated to their new studio space in Pelham in January 2022. Don says while their faith in “the big dream” was tested yet again, neither he nor Sue Ellen lost sight of their purpose: creating to defy the odds.
Strolling through DS Art, one will have to make several trips looking up, down, right and left–for there is much more than what first meets the eye. Don’s drawings are incredibly detailed, and if one looks hard enough, he will see Don’s vision reflected in each portrait adorning the studio’s walls.
When asked about his “ballpoint medium,” Don says, “I’ve already spent all of my academic career, which was sizable at that point, with a ballpoint pen in my hand. It’s what I used to take notes. It’s what I used to write essays. It’s what I used to do patient charts. So, I literally already had a groove cut into my middle finger on my right hand, where the pen sits.”
Don would often doodle drawings into the margins of his homework or notes, so transitioning to drawing art with nothing but a black-ink, ballpoint pen was quite smooth. Sue Ellen, on the other hand, utilizes almost every medium there is to create her art.
Some of her favorite pieces of artwork include her multi-medium dragon portraits, which are first sketched with pencil, then painted over and finally, lightly airbrushed for a bit of artistic flair. In 2022, both Don and Sue Ellen were recruited by a talent agent, who helped build their brand on an international level.
Several pieces of Sue Ellen’s airbrush and acrylic work are now on a collection of Magic the Gathering Cards and Ravensburger Jigsaw Puzzles, whose company is based in Austria. Her signature “dragons” have also been turned into a set of greeting cards from The Best Card Company, too.
Forty of Don’s composite images were converted into a coloring book called, “Quirky Collages to Color.” Not only has Don’s work been accepted into galleries in New Orleans and Gatlinburg, but his work was also sought after by Hobby Lobby, who struck a deal with Don, selling four of his prints in-store, nationwide.
Don says he never could have imagined what true happiness feels like–more importantly, sharing such joy and career success with his love, Sue Ellen–had he stayed stagnant in fear, working as a doctor. Sure, his fear–his career–kept him “up with the Joneses,” but at what point is one no longer willing to sacrifice his sanity for appearance or some society-approved jurisdiction?
“I used to do presentations at schools for career day, and I would tell my [students], ‘I want every one of you to get my job,’” Don says. “That doesn’t mean you have to be an artist. I know a long haul truck driver that has my job. I know a trauma surgeon that has my job. They can’t wait to get out of bed to get at it because it’s too much fun, and it fulfills them.”
Not every dream aligns with the societal status quo, but that’s the beauty in dreaming–to each his own.
“There is that misconception that art is just ‘exhale’ and it appears,” Sue Ellen says. “It does take discipline–in some cases, courage.”
While Don and Sue Ellen are now celebrating close to 40 years of being in the art business and 24 years of joyful union, they both agree that neither would be possible without a little faith and a whole lot of persistence.
Dreams, they say, can be scary because they represent the impossible, “society’s insanities.” Truly, there is no one right path any dreamer can take, but what sweet solace one finds in embracing that of which is unknown to him.
And, happiness, however out-of-reach it may seem, will always welcome dreamers who dare to do the impossible.
DS Art is located at 3180 Pelham Parkway. It is open Tuesday-Friday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Those interested in viewing or purchasing artwork can visit both dsart.com and zoolnart.com to support Don and Sue Ellen’s businesses.