Photo courtesy of Dayne Sislen
From the moment I step into Dayne Sislen’s home for our interview, I can tell it is the home of an artist.
It is warm and inviting, much like Sislen herself. There are sculptures, paintings, and carved wooden birds that her father made, and a wood inlay box and chessboard that her grandfather created.
Sislen has been an artist her entire life. “I drew on everything,” she says, thinking back to her childhood. “After I drew on the walls a few times, my parents always made sure that I had plenty of paper. I grew up in a family of artists, so when I showed talent, I always had the materials I needed.”
After a childhood spent assisting her mother on commercial art projects, Sislen attended Washington University in St. Louis on an art scholarship with the goal of becoming an art director. The summer after her sophomore year, she worked as a junior art director at an advertising company. She fully intended to go back to school in the fall, but when the art director was fired, she was offered the job.
Before taking the position, she sought advice from Frank Roth, her design teacher at Wash. U, who told her, “If you have this opportunity, you go for it. You can always finish school.” Sislen took the position (and she did finish her degree years later).
“I had no idea what I was doing,” she says with a laugh. “I hadn’t yet finished college, and I was already an art director.”
This position provided her with invaluable experience that she applied in her future role as junior art director at Stolz Advertising, which at that time was the third largest advertising agency in the city. She was quickly promoted to senior art director, and by the time she was 28, she was one of the vice presidents of the agency.
“To be vice president of an ad agency back in the '70s was huge,” Sislen says. “Have you ever watched Mad Men? That’s what it was like.”
“I spent my entire life trying to draw like a man, because you wouldn’t want anyone to think that you were a woman doing these things,” she recalls. “Before people would meet me, they’d say, ‘I had no idea that you were a woman from your drawings,’ and that was the biggest compliment. Today, you’d say that’s discrimination, but back then I’d tell them 'Thank you.'”
It wasn’t until Sislen began illustrating children’s books that she felt like she could let her feminine side out. “I got to draw cutesy things that I’ve never been able to draw before.”
She never set out to be an illustrator for children’s books—she just fell into it. One day, someone at the agency approached her about illustrating a book.
“I don’t do that,” she told him.
“But you draw,” he said.
“Well, yeah, I draw, but I don’t illustrate."
“But I like the way you draw. Why don’t you do this for me?”
She did—and she loved it.
After she finished the first book, she was referred to someone else. This pattern continued, and she’s now completed nine books and is currently working on three of her own.
“Writers contact me from all over,” Sislen says. “It takes me about six months to finish a book, so I have been at points where I’ve had to say no because the person couldn’t wait.”
Sislen began painting her illustrations in watercolor, but clients sometimes request significant changes at the end of a project. Once, a client thought the main character of a book reminded her of her niece, so she asked Sislen to change all the faces to look more like her niece. “I’d have had to start from scratch,” she says. “So we agreed to make the girl on the cover look more like her niece.”
This motivated Sislen to take a course in digital painting at a local community college. She loved the flexibility digital painting provided in the editing process, and it meant that she could move her studio from the basement to a guest bedroom in her house. Instead of working with paint and canvas, Sislen now spends eight hours a day between two Mac computers and a Cintiq graphics tablet.
Illustrating books can be isolating work, but Sislen belongs to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which has provided her with a supportive and creative network of like-minded people. She credits this organization as being an integral part of her development as an illustrator.
“In my critique group, they think I’m crazy because I draw the pictures first," she says with a laugh. "I’ll come in, and I’m so excited to share my story. They’ll ask, ‘Where are the words? We can’t critique you unless there are words.’”
Sislen has a finished book that she plans to bring to the next critique session. It’s an “Agatha [Christie] goose mystery” titled Aunt Lucy is Missing. If they like it, she plans to send it to publishing houses.
The idea for a book on geese came one day while Sislen was walking her dog at a nearby park. “There were some baby geese doing silly things, like getting their feet caught in things, and the mama goose was screaming at them,” she recalls.
Sislen had already planned to write a mystery and had been reading Agatha Christie books in preparation. “I knew I wanted to do a mystery, so I thought it’s got to be a mystery about geese.”
Sitting in her studio, which is neatly decorated with her artwork, Sislen says, “I’ve met a lot of nice people in my life.” She credits her success to her mentors who provided her with opportunities and always believed in her.
Sislen is now the one mentoring others.
“I have a 10-year-old pen pal who lives in the city. His grandfather brings him over, and we work together on his projects,” she says with a smile on her face.
“I love what I do,” she says. “Everyday I wake up and think, 'How could I be so lucky to find the one thing in life I like to do so much?'”