Chasing a dream: From union pipefitter to artist
He was a union pipefitter most of his career, crawling around the guts of factories, wrestling with the mechanics that keep plants up and safe and running.
But Don Sutton's thrown that over. He quit his job in the spring, bound and determined to become an artist before it's too late.
The 50-year-old, who graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then went right into an industrial apprenticeship, has made a life habit of unconventional choices and defying expectations.
He admits a mid-life crisis played a role in his most-recent decision.
"I started thinking, 'What am I doing with my life?' " Sutton said, speaking in the enclosed back porch that's become his painting studio. "I've had a couple friends die," he added, "and decided — I have a window, right now. Why not give it a try?"
Sutton's ambition is to get into an MFA program at a good art school. He's dreaming of the University of Michigan, Cranbrook, or going back to the Art Institute of Chicago.
He's only been doing art full-time for six months. But already there are plans in the works for a summertime show at the Annex Gallery at 333 Midland in Highland Park.
"I thought his artwork stood up pretty well, actually," said Rob Onnes, sculptor and co-owner of 333 Midland, who just recently met the Bloomfield Hills resident. "It's different, something I haven't seen before."
Sutton's creative output splits into two general categories — elegant, colorful digital art created on his iPad, and his textured, crowded, emotion-packed paintings.
He also paints lunch bags for his 10-year-old daughter, Maddy.
Sutton, a big, genial guy with curly gray hair starting to recede, comes from the family that owns the John E. Green Co. in Highland Park, significant local players in plumbing, heating and mechanical contracting.
When he got out of art school, he says, he wasn't precisely obligated to go into the family business, but expectations certainly ran in that direction.
Sutton had already spent summers working on the labor side of the company, and found that route more appealing than management.
"I didn't want to be an office guy," he said. "I didn't want to be the guy at the golf outing."
Like a lot of Detroiters, he was drawn to the romance of industrial construction, "playing around with torches and bridge cranes, climbing around in the steel, going deep into the ceilings of auto plants. That," he said, "was way more interesting. "
If you see a disconnect between pipefitting and Sutton's art training, he'd tell you you're mistaken.
"My industrial work absolutely sharpened my artistic eye," he said. "I'd love to be able to share the beauty of working under the flare at Rouge Steel — in the ditch in January, with the slag-hauler the warmest thing around, spilling molten slag three feet away into a pit."
Sutton longs to show outsiders the drama that defines the Motor City, "what we make and the lives lived in the process," he said, "how form follows function, and how things become elegant when taken to industrial scale."
Still, were it not for the intercession of a teacher in the Birmingham schools, Sutton's life may or may not have ever found direction.
"My parents didn't know what to do with me," he said, noting that in high school he ran with a druggy, dangerous crowd. "It looked like it'd either be jail or the Marines."
But he was always doodling, whether at church or in school. When a teacher at Groves High School saw him drawing on the back of a test paper, he told the no-account student he wanted to see him after class.
"I thought I was in trouble," Sutton said. But it turned out that teacher ran the school system's program for gifted and talented kids. From the junior's point of view, it was nothing short of a miracle.
"After that," he said, "I never took another class. I spent all my time in the art studio, and ended up going to the Art Institute on a merit scholarship."
So you could say that Sutton, who worked in recent years as an estimator, has come full circle, though that brings some fearsome challenges. Happily, his wife Elisabeth — who will return to nursing soon to keep family finances in order — is on board.
"I support Don 100 percent," she said, "both working on his art and going back to school. Ultimately, he was so unhappy at his job," she said, "but the person he is when he's creating is so fantastic, that I just want him to create all the time."
Sutton will apply to graduate art programs next month. But if he doesn't get in, he says, that won't alter his longterm plans.
"I will do art regardless," he said. "I've been doing it through some hard times, and will continue, even if grad school doesn't work out."