Picture Perfect

Artist enjoys Village living and bringing children’s books to life

By Rob O'Connor '95
Managing Editor

When Melanie Dorman Siegel '85 showed an interior designer for her previous home sketches from an art class she was taking, the designer told her the drawings looked like they belonged in a children's book.

It was fortuitous feedback for Siegel.

"I was always drawing something, and it had to tell a story and had to be funny," she said. "It was something I've always done. I just didn't realize it."

"I think that would be a great thing for me to be," she thought when the designer made that comment.

Following her husband's suggestion, she joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators to learn the idiosyncrasies of the publishing industry. She put together a portfolio of her work and showed it to Marla Frazee, a professional illustrator, at a conference in Los Angeles, Calif. Frazee looked at her work and said, "You're ready to do this!"

"I was fortunate that I can draw almost anything," she said. "It was just a matter of gaining confidence."

Fortified by Frazee's encouragement, Siegel was soon mailing postcards of her work to art directors and, in 2001, landed her first illustration job — a 48-page early reading book featuring funny little poems by Joan Horton. The project was due in six weeks.

"I was too naïve to know you can't do that. It's too little time," she said. "But it turned out OK."

Since her first illustration experience, Siegel's work has appeared in publications in South America, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, as well as Highlights magazine.

"I just couldn't stop," she said. "I've tried several times to quit but I just can't. It's what I do."

The Big Picture

Despite her innate artistic ability, the picture of her future vocation wasn't always so clear for Siegel.

A Magnolia native, she followed her sister Debbie Dorman Bernard '70 to Hendrix, where she majored in psychology.

"I took a lot of art, but I was really terrible," she said. "I'm not a fine artist."

"I didn't have any particular direction ... I loved psychology and I was good at it, but I think I chose it more out of a sense of duty," said Siegel, whose siblings were going into careers in medicine.

Among her memorable professors are the late Frank Roland '68, from whom she took photography, art professor Don Marr, history professor Dr. Garrett McAinsh, and Dr. Albert Raymond, whose human physiology course remains Siegel's favorite class at Hendrix.

Uncertain about her future, she left Hendrix for a year and enrolled at the University of Central Arkansas, where she tried courses in accounting, business, computer science, and thought about nursing.

Meanwhile, she worked as a graphic designer for Frank Robins '49 at the Log Cabin Democrat newspaper.

"Frank was tough, but I learned a lot," said Siegel. "But I decided I can't do this forever."

So she came back to Hendrix and met with Dean Raymond, who told her that all she needed to finish was one psychology class and three electives. She opted for physiological psychology with Dr. Chris Spatz '62 and, among her electives, three independent studies with Don Marr.

One of Marr's assignments to her had been to find an artist and copy his or her style.

"It didn't occur to me until years later that I picked Mercer Mayer, an illustrator," she said.

Marr intended for her to choose a fine artist, not an illustrator, she said.

"It was very sweet of him to just let me be who I was," she said.

After graduation, she married and started a family with Dr. Bill Siegel, an administrator at Fort Roots, the veteran's hospital in North Little Rock and former professor at Hendrix.

As a mother, Siegel was subconsciously studying children's literature as she read to her children and future Hendrix students Rachel Siegel '10 and Sam Siegel '14. Rachel, a sociology and anthropology major, currently serves as a Presidential Fellow for the Crain Maling Center of Jewish Culture. Sam is now a psychology major at Hendrix.

"I've had a long and strong interest in children's illustration," said Siegel, who enjoyed sharing the work of the late Maurice Sendak and the Poppleton series, written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Mark Teague, with her children.

An Artist in the Village

After 20 years of living in west Conway, the Siegels became empty nesters and decided it was time for a change of scenery.

In January 2011, after eating dinner at ZAZA Fine Pizza and Salad in The Village at Hendrix, they walked through the residential area under construction and stood on the porch steps of the sales office.

"We said, ‘Wow! It's so quiet' and we just looked at each other and knew," she said.

"I work at home by myself, which is very isolating," she said. "The thought of living closer to people began to be really appealing."

The Siegels moved into their home in The Village in November 2011.

"Now we have a nice social circle of neighbors, and I see people every day," she said. "It's just the right medicine ... a perfect marriage."

From her home office, Siegel uses an electronic drawing pad or monitor (Wacom Cintiq and Wacom Intuos 5) and Corel Painter for her illustrations. Though she did advertising layouts manually when she worked as a graphic designer, she has always used digital technology for her illustrations.

She is currently working on a children's book project for Red Robin Books in the U.K. called The Best Present Ever and English-as-a-second-language books for elementary students at Compass Publishing in South Korea.

She hopes to write and illustrate a book on her own in the future. She's also exploring the possibility of using new publishing technology to release e-books of her work.

"During my career, at first, the illustrators and writers were out in the field, and the publishers had the key to the gate," she said.

New companies like Book Tango will now take your book and format it for every kind of media, she said.

"It's changed radically, in a good way. Now everybody has a key."