I beg your Parton
MacKenzie Haley ’02 will fully admit, she doesn’t really know anything about country music.
So, when her literary agent first told her a celebrity — a country music star — was interested in her illustrating their newest children’s book, she was left guessing.
“I don’t know country music well,” she said. “But I had no idea in the world it was going to be Dolly Parton. When I found out, I was flabbergasted.”
That’s right — the quintessential queen of big hair and country twang, Dolly Parton, wanted her.
Haley, a visual communication design graduate, almost immediately asked, “Where do I sign?”
Haley has waited nearly 20 years for the type of jobs she is getting asked to do now, since graduating in 2002. When she started classes at UD, coming from her hometown of Louisville, she said she wasn’t even really sure what illustration was.
“I just knew that I really loved to draw,” she said. “So, I ate up every drawing and painting class as quickly as I could.”
Her art classes at UD were an immersive experience, she said. She drew particular inspiration from instructor Raina Bajpai, now an artist in Brooklyn, New York.
Haley remembers one of Bajpai’s drawing classes that featured a hired nude model, something that made her a little uncomfortable. So, she sat out of eyeshot. After several classes, Bajpai noticed that every drawing Haley turned in was from the same perspective — behind.
“Finally, she came over to me and said, ‘MacKenzie, what’s going on?’ And told me that I’d need to go to the front,” she said. “She helped me see that I needed to just look at [the model] as a series of shapes. She was a great teacher.”
After graduation, Haley spent several years working a 9-to-5 job in the insurance industry, illustrating in the evenings. She submitted her work and saw some success but constantly struggled with agents dropping her and failed project contracts.
It wasn’t until she started illustrating themes she was interested in that her work took off.
“I started drawing weird little vampires, witches and ghosts,” she said. “They made me happy, and those ended up being the pieces that attracted most agents’ and publishers’ attention.”
By 2018, she was getting enough illustration jobs that she did what she called “the scariest thing” she’s ever done — she quit her day job.
“It’ll be five years this summer that I started illustrating (full time), and I’ve been extremely lucky,” she said.
Her work started getting noticed on Instagram, and she signed with a small boutique agency. Almost instantly, she started getting jobs with bigger publishers like Harper Collins, Macmillan and Penguin.
Haley is looking forward to several books she’s illustrated being released in 2023, but there are two or three that she is the proudest of, one of which being Dolly’s book — Billy the Kid Makes it Big.
The story focuses on Billy, who is based on Parton’s God dog, a French bulldog who belongs to her manager. In the book, little Billy is a country dog who dreams of making it big in Nashville but faces some challenges along the way. It hits bookshelves this spring.
Haley admits the exposure she has received so far has been a little strange. But said it’s all worth it when she hears from readers.
“One of my happiest things is getting pictures from parents whose kids read my books, or kids will draw my characters and send me letters,” she said. “Books were a huge part of my life growing up; I remember feeling like you go into a different world with them. If I can do that for kids, even just a few, I’m super happy with that.”