09 Oct 2023 Author of the Month: Cathy Melvin
By Susan L. Peterson
“Cypress Knees and Tupelo Trees: Discovering Plants and Animals of the Swamp” is the title of Cathy Melvin’s recently published children’s picture book. Melvin combined her artistic talent with her background in biology to produce this delightful publication that both entertains and educates all readers.
The fascinating ecosystem that inspired Melvin is preserved swampland right here in Central Arkansas, the Lorance Creek Natural Area near her home in Hensley, just south of Little Rock. It is off Interstate 530 (Exit 9) and has a half-mile boardwalk trail that is open year-round.
Melvin was born in Oklahoma, but her father’s job in the oil industry took them to multiple continents. She loved exploring unusual flora and fauna while residing in exotic locations such as Singapore, Spain, Venezuela and Colombia.
She attended high school in the U.S., where Melvin’s artistic talents became evident to her art teacher, who suggested she become an illustrator for science books. But her career path leaned toward the sciences. She received her bachelor’s degree in marine science and biology, hoping to become the next Jacques Cousteau. But she soon realized she didn’t like the sun and sand and instead turned to the world of molecular biology.
In 1999, Melvin and her husband moved to Arkansas to be closer to family and to further her federal career. After 23 years, she retired from the Public Health Service in 2019. During those years, she continued to fuel her interest in art by taking occasional classes at the Arkansas Arts Center, and she often volunteered in her children’s classroom.
One project she initiated as a parent volunteer was the publication of a student picture book that was submitted to a national contest. It was so successful, other teachers asked her to do the same with their classes.
Several weeks before COVID-19, Melvin and her family adopted a natural area near their home, the Lorance Creek Natural Area. Comprising nearly 400 acres of natural swampland, it became a welcome refuge for them during the months of lockdown. The more time she spent there, the more the swamp revealed, and it occurred to her that documenting it would allow others to more fully enjoy this diverse ecosystem.
Drawing from her background as a scientist and from those previous book projects, she decided to create her own book. She says it was a great creative outlet during the lockdown. She used materials she had on hand and formed her illustrations by layering brush-painted cutouts in a style similar to Eric Carle.
There are 32 pages of colorful collages filled with original renditions of plants and animals that live there — crossvines, creepers, catkins, crayfish, damselflies, and about 50 others that exist, along with the cypress and tupelo trees.
When the book was nearly complete, she took it to Erin Wood at Et Alia Press in Little Rock for a consultation on where to submit her work. When Wood saw the book, she enthusiastically told Melvin she was interested in publishing it. The completed version went on sale April 22, Earth Day.
Melvin and her family still volunteer to maintain the area. She especially enjoys the spring and fall months and now knows the various sights and sounds to expect during each season.