Meet Chatelaine‘s new favourite artist, the talented Elly MacKay

Elly MacKay creates exquisite paper scenes that will set your imagination on fire — in fact they might just be the most beautiful things we’ve seen this year.

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Elly MacKay. Photo, Sian Richards.

Age: 32

Occupation: Artist and children’s book author

Lives: Owen Sound, Ont.

Search Elly MacKay’s name on Pinterest and you’ll come up with hundreds of hits. It seems like people just can’t get enough of her whimsical paper dioramas — with good reason: They’re truly breathtaking.

Her creations were already Etsy bestsellers when the internet upswell caught the attention of an agent, who tracked Elly down in her studio in Owen Sound, Ont. Two book deals later, Elly has been chosen to illustrate the covers for a new edition of Anne of Green Gables, out this August. “My 12-year-old self is so happy,” Elly says. “I’ve been playing the audiotapes while I work.”

Some of Elly’s inspiration comes from her children, Lily, 5, and Koen, 2, but she also draws from her own childhood. Elly grew up in an old church on the shores of Big Bay, Ont., a.k.a. “the stone-skipping capital of Canada.” She spent her days playing outside and watching her parents, both artists, work. “My mom wrote books on how to make pop-ups, which is how I started working with paper, and I did pottery with my dad,” she says. “They showed me it’s possible to make a living doing this.”

Elly started early, selling her paper-cut-out books in a Toronto gallery as a teen. She later attended the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, where she met her husband, Simon, a woodworker. “We struggled for about a year, working odd jobs and making art. I don’t know how we survived, but we did.”

Last summer the family moved into a 115-year-old house with high ceilings and arched windows spread out over three storeys. Elly describes their decor style as “classic eclectic” but also “messy and filled with flowers.” There’s a widow’s walk where she eats her lunch in the warmer months.

Once she’s sent her kids off to school, Elly retreats to her sunny attic studio. There, her husband has created a mini “theatre” where she stages little worlds based on children’s imaginings. The delicately detailed paper scenes might include a mermaid frolicking, a winged boy on a horse or a whale traversing sparkling waters. After she’s set them up, Elly lights and photographs them, transforming them into lush, beautiful prints. “I hope they remind people of their own experiences or imaginings and fill them with a sense of play,” she says.

Despite her quaint set-up Elly is a thoroughly modern artist, selling her prints at her Etsy shop, Theater Clouds. “I had no idea there’d be an audience for it. I was just making them, and to my delight, people wanted to buy them.” The prints are so popular that they have even captured the attention of Oprah on her blog.

Every night Elly reads to Lily and Koen, being sure to capture their reactions and interpretations, and then returns to her studio for a few more hours. “My husband ends up there too and plays guitar, and we hang out. I feel like we’ve finally got it figured out.”

 

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Playing with Koen. Photo, Sian Richards.

Elly’s telling details

My proudest moments were… when my children were born.

I define downtime as… evenings at the beach or in the back garden.

I wish I had more time for… travel, visiting family and friends.

My favourite quote… the most recent quote in my mind is by Lucy Maud Montgomery in Anne of Avonlea: “Fancies are like shadows. You can’t cage them, they’re such wayward, dancing things.”

I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about… the kids, projects I am working on, home repairs. I am looking forward to the time when my little ones sleep through the night. I hope I will too.

I wish I were better at… singing or playing an instrument.

My favourite moment of the day is… when the kids crawl into our bed in the morning.

My perfect day would be… a hike on the Bruce Trail, a swim in the bay and dinner with friends and family.

My guiltiest pleasure is… staying up far too late working on a project.

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Photographing a scene in her theatre. Photo, Sian Richards.

Five things Elly can’t live without

Tea in one of my Dad’s mugs: “Things just taste better in the mugs he makes.”

My little theatre: “My husband made it for me — best Christmas gift ever. I play with it every day.”

Eternal Bee candles: “Without a fireplace, candles are the next best thing for comfort, and I love the smell of beeswax.”

A sketchbook and a 3B pencil: “I take them everyhere, even to the grocery store.”

My old claw-foot bathtub: “It’s the perfect place to daydream and come up with new stories.”

Find Elly’s prints at etsy.com/shop/theaterclouds