Listening to God
Alabama’s Don Sawyer was 22 when he decided to make a living in real estate.
“All I had to do was take a test, get a license, and go to work. I knew it was something I could do.”
By 1977, Sawyer was the youngest president of the Montgomery County Board of Realtors. His company had five offices with 100 agents. “I think that was the year we hit the top 1% in Montgomery,” he says. A local agent described him as a legendary listing agent, “the best to ever walk the streets of Montgomery.” His TV commercials were so captivating that, one day, I called him, introduced myself, and told him how much I liked his ads. He responded with an invitation to lunch and offered to send a limousine for me. That was vintage Don Sawyer, the consummate professional, always giving, searching, teaching, and driven to succeed. Years later, I learned that he had left the real estate business and was painting. That was a story I couldn’t resist! I caught up with him in Destin, Florida at the Harbor Walk Village where his whimsical paintings had transformed the walkway into a permanent exhibition of his creative genius. I watched expressionless faces stroll toward his outdoor gallery. As eyes studied his art, a twinkle would appear, followed by a smile, then laughter and pointing. “What’s your best seller, Don?” I asked.
“Be nice or leave,” he smiled, nodding at the colorful fish with sunglasses and toothy grin. Even back then, he had already sold over six-thousand original paintings, thousands of prints, and given away several hundred. As a businessman, Sawyer has always been a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. His serious blue-grey eyes hold you in an intense gaze that makes you wonder what he’s thinking. If nothing else is obvious about him, it’s easy to see that his wheels are always turning, forever contemplating the end of the next rainbow. A strange turn of events converted him from driven real estate tycoon to consummate artist. After selling his company in 1994, he went horseback riding. The next morning, he awoke and couldn’t walk. Sawyer served a tour in Viet Nam and is a highly decorated Marine. Doctors diagnosed him with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare paralysis that afflicted many military veterans of Southeast Asia. He tenaciously taught himself to walk again and, simultaneously, took up the brush. He purchased a book of Vincent van Gogh’s master works. “When I decided to become an artist, I determined to be different from everybody else. So, I developed a style of my own based on the greatest artists that ever lived. I couldn’t find what I wanted; so, I made my own palette knives out of plastic,” he says.
In 2017, Sawyer experienced another great transformation. “I’m all wrapped up in the scriptures. For the last 8 months that’s all I’ve done, except commissions. I’ve always been a Christian, I thought. Just like everybody thinks they are. But I’ve never been like I am now. I’ve never liked the corporate spirituality of a church. I don’t like the cliques. I don’t like the ninety-year-old elders that think they own the place. You know, I’ve just never gotten into it. Instead, I’ve always been to church right here. Of course, I was missing something—that one special person—the Holy Spirit. I started coming into my studio, I’d turn on bluegrass gospel, shut myself up in there on Sunday and that was it. I was in church.” But his wife, Claire, was attending a little church near their home; and she talked Don into going to see a movie, The War Room. “Right in the middle of that show something happened. And I don’t think I’ve missed church more than two or three Sunday’s since, and its going on three years. I thought, okay, it’s time to go to the next level. I started getting involved with the church. Every day that goes by, I get more involved with God. I get to know Him better. I talk to Him. And He talks back, but only because I’m getting to truly understand Him and getting to know Him. That relationship comes from getting to know these scriptures the way I have. To do these paintings, you’ve got to study the Bible. You’ve got to see the images. You’ve got to have the feel for it. You’ve got to have what I call Paul’s light, and have it all together, to even begin to paint one of these things. You don’t just haul off and paint the Book of Genesis. You’ve got to know the Book of Genesis. Don started with Genesis and has now created a painting for every book of the Bible.
“I’ve gone from a goal of five-hundred paintings a year to only one-hundred a year, because it takes a week to paint one of these. I now have no goals except to wait on God.
"I take instructions from Him. I’m done painting the books of the Bible. Now, I’m painting what’s happening. The next one I’m going to do is going to be this white horse up on his hind legs with this glare coming in behind him. He’ll be yellow-white and the glare will be a pale-blue. It’ll be unbelievable. God has made it clear to me, in no uncertain terms, that this is what He wants me to do. And where it’s going to go, I don’t know. Because, when I’m dead and gone, they’ll still be here. You can’t deny it. This art’s just got God all over it. It just does. I don’t have an end goal. That’s an instruction I’m waiting on. I do know I’m being told ‘don’t be in a hurry. Cool it. You know, if you need some money, have an art show and go sell something else.’ I have a thousand paintings. These represent only seventy. I know these paintings are special. I know they are. And to prove it, I don’t have to sell them. It’s like an author that does a book that’s so good that he doesn’t even have to put his name on it. If a painting is good enough, it stands on its own, with or without a name on it. This is not the Bible in story book form,” Don says of his inspired paintings; and he scoffs at the idea that anyone could presume to paint the face of God.
“One of these days, I’m going to have a show with all of them at once. Because I’ve never seen them all together. I just want to do what God explicitly says. We have all been given a talent. Every living soul has been given at least one talent. Use it. And not only use it. But use it for His glory. I’m a very blessed guy. I can use the talent He gave me to make money, and for His glory, at the same time. I’ll make money whether I want to or not, because I’m doing it for His glory. I’m amazed at people who have such great talent but don’t become well-known and make Him known through that talent that He gave them. So, that’s what I’m doing. I’ve stopped the train—the money-making train. I stopped trying to do five or ten paintings a day, which is what I was doing to make money. I started working for God. I get up every day and spend the first hour or two in the Bible. When you have that attitude, you make money despite yourself. The one thing I know for sure is that God will not let me starve. If you want to be successful in life or business, just listen to God.”
Sawyer’s story seems right out of the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 18, 3-4: Then I went down to the potter's house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so, he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.
“It just hit me right between the eyes. It’s almost like He wrote it for me. I prayed myself right into what I needed to be doing. My end-game is simply to do what God wants me to do. If that means to not paint at all, He’ll let me know that. And I’ll do something else. I can reach people. I can teach people. I teach art every Tuesday night. There’s also a Bible study. No pressure. Every day is Saturday.”
Words by Jeff Barganier Photo by Don Sawyer