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Michael Sieben Illustrates a New Edition of 'The Wizard of Oz'

Austin's inkstained Okay Mountain man drops da Baum on us

By Wayne Alan Brenner, 10:57AM, Tue. Feb. 19, 2013

Everything is dust in the wind –
yellow brick dust, to be specific.
Everything is dust in the wind –
yellow brick dust, to be specific.

Michael Sieben's come a long way.

Now he co-owns a skateboard company – Roger Skateboards – and is a member of Austin's Okay Mountain collective of artists, and his works appears in print and online venues like Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose, and, this latest thing, he's the illustrator of a new edition of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from Harper Collins.

Sieben will be introducing the gorgeous new tome at BookPeople at Sixth & Lamar this very night at 7pm, in fact. And who knows precisely what's in store for the man with the star-bright future after that?

But – you know where this talented guy started out? Listen:

Austin Chronicle: Your first commercial job was for us?

Michael Sieben: I was going to UT, and the first check I ever received was from the Austin Chronicle – I think for doing the Back Page illustration. It paid, I dunno, twenty dollars at the time? So I was doing that, and then I started doing spot illustrations, and ended up doing a couple of covers. That was in, like, '97 or '98, and it was my very first paying gig as an illustrator.

AC: And now you're more like this world-famous guy who's in demand everywhere.

Sieben: Ha, well, I'm trying. That's my goal.

AC: How goes the skateboard business?

Sieben: It's good. That's always been a dream of mine, to have my own brand, and it's super-fun. Two of us own the company, and it's nice to have a project where we literally have the freedom to do anything we want, y'know? I'm not working with an art director, I am the art director for the company, so I get to park all my bad ideas there.

AC: And how did you get hooked up with this Wizard of Oz project?

Sieben: An editor from Harper Collins, a woman named Elizabeth Sullivan, she's at their imprint Harper Design – that's all their design, art, illustration, and photography books. She's done a couple of classic books like this – Alice in Wonderland and Snow White – and she's worked with Camille Rose Garcia and had great luck doing the contemporary version of these classic books. So she found my work in a Juxtapoz illustration annual, and she thought my work would be a great fit for The Wizard of Oz and contacted me. Totally out of the blue, she sent me an email and pitched the idea. And I was thrilled, because I've always wanted to work on a children's book, but I had no idea how to break into that industry. So it was sort of a dream project.

AC: In doing the visuals, did you look at other illustrations that have been done for the story in the past?

Sieben: I did – I jumped on Amazon and bought probably half a dozen Wizard of Oz books, just to see how other illustrators approached the project. And also to make sure I wasn't treading on someone else's ground, make sure I wasn't doing what had been done previously. And it was really overwhelming, because there have been some great interpretations of all the characters. And I started to watch the movie and had to turn it off, kind of freaked myself out. So I put everything away and started from scratch, worked on coming up with character interpretations that made sense in terms of my previous work. Another crazy part of this is that Harper times these so they come out with relevant movies, so there's a prequel to The Wizard of Oz that comes out next month, and James Franco stars in it. So they've timed the book to come out when everybody's talking about The Wizard of Oz, they know what's smart.

AC: Sounds real smart.

Sieben: The movie was supposed to come out last year, actually, so at the time I had just three months to do all the illustrations for the book. It could've been a year and three months as it turns out, but they thought the movie was being released earlier. So I didn't have time to, like, second-guess what I was doing with the character design – I had to get stuff approved fairly quickly and start cranking stuff out. Which was fine, I think it turned out great, but now I've had two years to look back and think about what I might've done differently. Although, well, I guess every project's like that. Hindsight, right?

AC: Are you looking forward to more projects like that, more books?

Sieben: Yeah, I'd love to illustrate more books. But I talked to the publisher, and I think that's going to be based on sales. I'm guessing that, if the book tanks, I doubt I'll get the follow-up call. So it feels like we're going to sit back and see how it does, and if it's favorably received, then hopefully there's more projects for me with Harper Collins.

AC: Are you doing original works of your own, too, in addition to all the illustration work you do?

Sieben: Like, art for the sake of doing art?

AC: Exactly.

Sieben: Yeah, I am. I've been showing fairly regularly, but I've slowed down a little in the last two years. My wife and I had a little boy two years ago, and when we had him, I sort of shifted gears and tried to round up a few more commercial projects to work on. But, actually, I'm going to L.A. tomorrow, because I'm a part of Austin's Okay Mountain – we have a studio space, a gallery space – but I have a solo show that opens tomorrow night in Culver City, in the Mark Moore Gallery that represents Okay Mountain. A lot of my free time goes to working on collaborative projects with the rest of the Okay Mountain group. But, yeah, I'm actively making my own stuff, too.

AC: OK, you're going to L.A. for this show, you've got this new book out from Harper Collins, your skateboards go all over the world, and Okay Mountain's had a sort of international status since that Corner Store installation at PULSE Miami in 2009. So what is it that keeps you here in Austin?

Sieben: I'm still able to make a living here. Most of my money doesn't come from Austin, but – I grew up here, I'm really comfortable here, my family's here. And I love Austin. I think my plan, when I graduated from UT, I thought I'd graduate and move to San Francisco or L.A., but – like a lot of people – after spending time in Austin, I didn't want to leave after I graduated, because I just loved the city so much.

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