Former youth pastor and current Sedgwick County Firefighter Don Stewart can make nearly anything out of anything.
“My doctor told me, ‘Mr. Stewart I can confidently say you have the most severe case of adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) I’ve ever seen. It is a testament to your walking with the Lord you have made it this far in life.’ Laughing I said, ‘Thank you, did you just call me retarded?’”
Whether it’s a tree stump, an earthen stone or a pile of scrap iron, Stewart can turn nearly anything into something.
A tour of his Haviland-area farm is like holding up a mirror to the man himself.
Every few steps there are strange found-object concoctions.
A homemade water slide, a post-hole digger fabricated with leftover machine parts and a wind-powered tractor all within the first few steps.
A surprisingly detailed life-sized wooden alligator rests in the shadow of a metropolis-like tree house.
“I’d always liked these chainsaw artists and what they could do,” he said. “And I knew I could do it. I wanted to try. I grabbed a chainsaw and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
His woodworking and woodcarving have been highly sought after. He’s done commissions as simple as a yard sign and as complex as a custom pot rack inside a model home. Carved bears, in Haviland front yards and on the Barclay campus, are finely detailed and stunning.
On a Greensburg side road, curving around the putting green of the Cannonball Golf Course, his wily Greensburg Ranger rides a tornado over a buckling Big Well water tower.
“They were still cleaning up after the tornado and I pulled a county commissioner aside and said ‘hey I know you’ve got a lot going on, but I have an idea for a wood sculpture and I’d like to use one of those big trees, those big pines at the courthouse.’”
Stewart said he was eventually invited by Stan Robertson to carve a fallen cottonwood tree on the golf course grounds.
“It took a while to finish it,” he said. “Before I finished it, I’ll be honest, it looked like a turkey. I did get it done finally and I like it. Of course, I can always find something I could have done better.”
Continuing to walk towards his workshop, Stewart jumps from project-to-project like a kid trapped overnight in a toy store, almost panicking about which toy to play with first.
It is as if each one, for some short period of time, was the only thing in the world that mattered.
Resting on an anvil, near his modest metal forge, is a small iron sword, made for his 12-year-old son Benjamin. The curled aluminum helmet, probably an accessory, lies a couple yards behind him.
Page 2 of 4 - It is another project amongst projects buried in his expansive field filled with iron “going-to-dos” and reclaimed “got-a-plan-fors” that has invaded the land behind his home.
“I’ve brought these things out here for a purpose. I’ve had all of these projects, things I’ve had in my mind that I’ve wanted to do but I’m starting throwing things away. I’m finally ready to sit down and do the artwork. I’ve fiddled around with everything else long enough. I have to make some choices now.”
The Derby High School graduate began drawing at an early age and cartooned for his alma mater, later finding an interest in sculpture through his work as a firefighter.
He spent most of his early career working in youth ministry in the Wichita area, eventually moving to Mulvane with his wife Kim, a Haviland native.
He works for the Sedgwick County Fire Department and openly admits, at first, it was a reluctant profession.
“My favorite part about being a firefighter is the demolition,” said Stewart. “I go after the fire. We tear houses apart to save them. We go through walls, through ceilings and floors. We attack it and I love it. We’re hunting the fire down, we chase it down.”
He started to bring his work home with him, first doing freelance demolition then salvaging building materials, metal and fixtures for art projects.
The Stewarts moved to Haviland in 2001 and in 2005 bought the former Bryant Bros. General Store along Main Street, next door to the Origin’s Coffee House building.
Badly damaged by a fire in the mid-1980s, the ceiling had caved in and the exterior walls were bowing from years of neglect.
“All of this building is recycled,” said Stewart. “The only thing I’ve purchased is nails, bolts and screws. I got the boards for the floor for free and everything else has been pack ratted; repurposed, that is the fancy term for it.”
Stewart said his plan to open a brick-fire pizza restaurant will probably never come to fruition, but he wants to convert the historic building into an art gallery and bronze foundry. “This is my retirement I guess.”
Progress is slow, although Stewart has begun replacing load-bearing pylons and installing new floors, some people in the Haviland, most notably former mayor and current 1st District County Commissioner John Unruh, had expressed concerns about the building and the temporary façade facing Main Street.
Stewart said he is trying to stay away from deadlines but defends his attempt at saving the long-time Haviland storefront, no matter how long it takes.
“The city found it counter-productive to harass me over trying to get it done. I was doing stuff [in the building] and I’m still doing stuff. I saved the building from ultimate destruction. It was crumbling and likely would have taken out the building next door as well. They wanted to demolish it and I wanted to save it.”
Page 3 of 4 - Stewart can see past the piles of reclaimed barn wood and repurposed fixtures and imagines a bronze-casting foundry and art gallery serving the diverse and oft under-appreciated artist community in southwestern Kansas.
But he said his “side projects,” the array of half-finished inventions and reclaimed junk destined for projects never-to-be, has distracted him from his priorities.
He has begun clearing away and disposing of some of the scrap metal and clutter that he says was part of a painful, but necessary step towards a much-needed spiritual revelation.
“Looking back over the last few years, this started when we moved out here. Youth ministry was our life and we let go of it. We both felt that our time and our season in youth ministry was finished and I was mad. I was mad at God and I was hurt. I felt like I had been put on the bench. I hoped, in the back of my mind, that I would get a youth ministry job out here. When that didn’t happen I was hurt and mad. I wasted three years sitting out here being mad. My attitude with Him was ‘you know where I am, when you want to talk, you can get a hold of me.’ I threw a fit for three years. That is how this junk got here. I started collecting things, building things and partying with my skills. Who makes a telephone posthole digger out of a winch truck, an irrigation gearbox and a lawn mower engine, just for fun? Who does that just to see if they can do it?”
Stewart said leaving youth ministry allowed him to spend more time with his children, time that he wouldn’t have as a youth pastor.
“Natalie was just a 2-year-old. I would have been an absentee dad. He was merciful by stopping that from happening. He gave me a new life out here, to be a dad. I’ve allowed the Lord to get a hold of me and since then I see He saved our family.”
He said he’s ready to focus on finishing his building and clearing his land.
“I had busy hands, but no focus. I’m ready to focus. That is why I’m shedding all of the stuff.”
But creative habits are hard to break. Passing by his small blue car, Stewart shows off a half-finished bullwhip lying across his passenger seat.
He said he wanted to do it to see if he could do it. “I just love working with my hands, making things and creating things.”
The real problem is that he is such a diverse artist and nearly everything he does, he does well and has trouble concentrating on just one.
In his living room he has a beautiful, intricate stone sculpture of a firefighter battling a blaze. He’s carved portraits of his brothers in the butt of his rifle. A statuette made from a discarded piece of Styrofoam, is as detailed as any of his other work, maybe more.
Page 4 of 4 - All of his art, from his ironwork to his woodcarving, is worthy of any fine-art gallery.
“If I would hold still and concentrate on one medium I think I could do quite well. I’m not opposed to doing well at one type or artwork, but I love doing everything.”
Stewart is an extremely spiritual man, and despite the occasional disagreement with the Big Guy Upstairs, he says he expresses that faith through his art.
“I feel The Creator as I’m creating,” he said. “Some of the times when I felt true friendship and togetherness with Jesus have been while creating something. I can feel Him right there with me. There have been some jobs where I needed Him. When I remember to involve Him, they become the best projects I do. He amazes me because He wants to be part of my life. He wants to be involved in everything I’m doing; He’s the best friend I’ve ever had.”
Some of his work is inherently spiritual.
He has an unfinished sculpture addressing abortion titled “Not My Choice.” which he describes as “touching” and “a bit graphic.” But his faith informs all of his work and he looks to God for inspiration in times of need.
“I got hired to carve this curved hackberry tree. The roots had grown in one direction. The owner asked me if I could do something with it. I said yes, because I needed the work,” he laughed. “I walked around that thing five times and I couldn’t figure out what to do. I asked ‘Lord I need help here, I don’t know what is inside this tree.’ As soon as I asked, it came to me. I saw a sleeping bear. It turned out perfect; it was one of the best I’ve ever done.”
It will be a challenging road ahead for Stewart, a self-proclaimed “junker,” who is embarking on a new, more focused creative phase.
His diversity has been a blessing and a curse and he’s beginning to see what he once thought was a prolific period of experimentation, may have been just the thumb-twiddling of a distracted and unfocused artist.
“I need to stop collecting everything. I need to stop playing around and get to work. I’m looking forward to doing artwork and having a gallery. I want to do the foundry. I think I’ve gotten it out of my system. I’m a week into cleaning and I’m finally seeing how I’ve buried myself. On one of my cards it says, ‘If you can think it, I can make it.’ I think I’m done with that. I’m ready to focus.”