MRISAR's Honorary Team Member: John Alfred Siegel
Multi-media Artist, Zoo Keeper & Zoo Display Creator
John was born on June 1, 1921 and passed on Oct 27, 1988. He was a Detroit area artist and a zookeeper at the Detroit Zoo.
In 1971, the Detroit Zoo was honored when John was nominated and then selected to become the first recipient of the R. Marlin Perkins Certificate of Excellence, the highest award the AAZK bestowed at the time and contacted directly by Marlin Perkins. He was also made the recipient of an Honorary Life Membership in the Association. The American Association of Zoo Keepers is a society of animal keepers. Headquartered in San Diego, California, the Association has members in all of the major United States zoos and many foreign parks. John attended the Northeast Regional Conference in New York in June of 1971, where the award was formally presented.
While John's abilities as an animal keeper were well rounded and exacting, he was selected primarily for his outstanding contribution in creating sculptural habitats, artistic renderings for the displays and an innovative sign system at the Holden Museum in a time period when these elements were not yet commonly recognized as necessary for animal care and education. He was also responsible for the design and execution of many of the more intricately propped cages. He was an innovator and visionary in these applications and also invented methods and tools for his artistic work and animal care.
John was a zookeeper for 22 years before he became the official Display Creator for the zoo. And also in respect of his dedication and long hours spent on artistic improvements, he was granted the position of "Artist in Residence" at the Detroit Zoo. His dedication was so intense that he would work his regular hours and then bring work home to complete as well. He created works of art such as the relief sculpture penguins that were located over the doors of the Penguinarium. He also loaned art for special events and uses for the betterment of the zoo. In the respect of zoology and display presentation his background knowledge was substantial. He could for instance recite in a second the scientific name for almost any animal and other details of their care. He also had a reputation for helping animals and people outside of regular duties. For example he rescued a large python from a gas station bathroom, and other animals in distress and nursed them back to health. He also provided veterinarian care when requested beyond zoo duties. In the zoo some of his most dire duties were working with king cobras, alligators and crocodiles. In captivity king cobras have trouble rubbing their eye caps off when they shed so he had to assist them which is a duty that risks your life.
As a child, John's interest in animals was piqued by his father, an interesting man in his own right. His father, a German blacksmith and in later years a fearsome wrestler who was blinded in one eye by a spark during the blacksmith phase, told him stories of the African continent, when he jumped ship as a young sailor. John was raised on tales of crocodiles sunning themselves on riverbanks and lions piercing the night with their roars. John remembers his father telling stories of warding off an attacking ostrich with the only available weapons, his shoes, and of having to rely on the charity of villages he passed, as he made his way on foot through parts of Africa. He was always treated humanely, even while not being able to speak the language. John’s father was known to be very determined and strong. He would walk a half a mile home from work on his hands every day and refused to stop until he also walked up the front steps and into the house.
John was a native Detroiter. He graduated from Cass Technical High School with honors. He was drafted into the U. S. Army. He refused to carry a weapon, so was made a medic. He was placed in the Blue Devil’s 88th division which was one of the hardest hit divisions on the front lines in the Italian campaign. He also served in the Middle East campaign and the African campaign. He spent his time dodging bullets and retrieving wounded soldiers, who he bandaged and carried to safety while dodging bullets and explosions. He commented that the worst part was finding only a part of a person and not the rest of them. At least when they were alive you could work for their survival and hope for a good outcome. Amazingly his only significant injuries in the war were a broken nose while in a wreck in an ambulance and while in training a bite from a very large centipede that caused immense swelling and pain. When his nose was injured (deviated septum) the doctor told him he could pick a new appearance for his nose and brought in plaster noses representing famous actors. John picked Gregory Peck’s nose but naturally when the bandages came off he had the same nose (but bent to the side) as it was just a trick the doctor did to keep the injured in good spirits.
During a retrieval mission of fallen soldiers, John was suddenly approached by twenty some German soldiers, who upon learning he could speak fluent German, asked if he could help them surrender as they told him they wanted no part in the war. He managed to march them to a site where he successfully negotiated their surrender. One of the soldiers gave him his uniform belt buckle, which John saved along with his own medals and a few pieces of shrapnel collected from the battlefields in remembrance of the experience.
Gunfire and explosions were common and loss of life was a devastating part of John’s experience. One of his fellow medics was known of as Sergeant Sad Sack like the comic strip of that era. He cared for him like a brother and was very upset by his loss when he was killed in an explosion. A wonderful portrait of him was part of the art that John created during the war. It no longer exists due to damage from a flood. John drew many pictures of soldiers, civilians and landscapes, during his military service. Many he gave away. Some are also preserved in a family collection.
At one point during the war John was crouched at the edge of a stream, when a bomb thudded into the mud a few feet away from him. It did not explode, so he washed the splattered mud off himself and then walked away. He worked very hard to have composure even in dire conditions.
Not being one to let any artistic opportunity pass, John spent any leave time he had exploring the famous museums and architectural landmarks of Italy and creating works of art to document the people he met and the merits of Italy. He felt that the people and the communities of Italy were very wonderful regardless of the destruction of the war. He greatly appreciated the kindness he was shown by many citizens during his time there. He also drew fellow medics and soldiers. Most are of US soldiers but there is also one of a German soldier shortly after capture. Some original pieces were sent by mail and some were sent by V-Mail.
He was decorated for his service in the Italian, Middle East, and African Campaigns during World War II.
After the war, John came home and went to college on a GI Bill. He received a Bachelor's Degree in Education from Wayne State University, where he majored in Art and minored in the Biological Sciences.
For a while he taught art at the elementary, intermediate and high school levels and also at a summer camp where he got food poisoning, which was one of the happiest occurrences of his life. He would fondly recall that it was the only time in his childhood and early adult life where people cared about him to the extent of nursing him back to health.
John began his career as a zookeeper at the Detroit Zoo in May of 1950. He worked in the Bird House for over seven years before being assigned to the Tapir Exhibit. Interested in reptiles since his youth, he was the first Senior Keeper assigned to the Holden Museum of Living Reptiles.
After he had worked there for about six years, he was asked to do some paintings of birds. They were more than just graphics of birds, they were works of art. He would work on them after hours and loaned them for a significant time for display. He continued doing occasional art jobs until the post of Display Painter became available in 1973.
John was very interested in care for humanity and animal welfare. After retiring from the Zoo, John continued to live in the house where he was born, even though the area had long become a dire ghetto. Amongst the gunfire and violence, he developed a youth art program, with the help of his only child John Adrian Siegel, on the front porch of his home that helped to inspire inner city youths and gang members to be creative. He worked to change their interest in violence and drugs to instead be creative and help one another. For younger children, who often came from broken homes he acted the part of a Grandfather. At one point, for example, he took a group of over twenty excited children to an adventure at the Zoo. He found a friend in his son in creative and humanitarian duties and also nature walks.
John's favorite medium in later years was painting in bulletin oil enamel. He also enjoyed relief sculpture and silk-screening. He was very serious about his work. In his spare time, John liked to juggle. Spending time hiking and observing animals, especially reptiles in the woods, were his favorite things to do in his spare time. He was also on television as the animal handler in the “At the Zoo Show” and was a guest on “Bozo The Clown Show”, “Ricky The Clown Show” and guest stared as a truck driver on a court room drama show produced in Detroit. A number of interesting people gravitated to knowing John as his creative and gentle nature drew their interest. Among these were entertainers, like the actors who played Bozo and Ricky, and Sonny Eliot the weatherman and host of “At The Zoo Show” and Ivan the wrestler.
John passed on in his studio. He was creative till the very last. He was married to Inez Marie Siegel, has one child John Adrian Siegel and two grandchildren, Autumn Marie Siegel and Aurora Anne Siegel. Both Inez and he share the same birthday. They would work at times on artistic projects together and also work on projects with their son John.
Examples of the Art created by John Alfred Siegel
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