Acclaimed paper artist Elly MacKay is the author/illustrator of our feature book this month, Red Sky at Night. Her previous books have included If You Hold a Seed, Shadow Chasers and Waltz of the Snowflakes. Elly studied print making and illustration at art school. Her technique for creating her illustrations is quite detailed. First she inks her characters and the backgrounds on Yupo paper. Then cuts out the layers and sets them up in her miniature theatre. She lights the scenes and takes multiple photographs, altering the lenses, light and filters to create atmosphere. Elly takes her inspiration from Victoria Paper Theatre and Tunnel Books. She lives in Owen Sound, Ontario, with her husband and two children.
MARMALADE BOOKS: Can you tell us a bit about your childhood, growing up with parents who were artists? Did they inspire you to become an artist?
ELLY MACKAY: They’re great. Their names are Joan and Steve Irvine. They were always doing something interesting. My mom is a writer, and paper artist (and teacher too) and my dad is a potter and photographer. They live in a converted church out in the country. My options for entertainment out there were to play outside or to join in and make things too. We didn’t have any kids next door so every weekend in the summer my mom would invite all the kids in a 5-10 km radius to our ‘box club’. We used cardboard boxes, spray paint and duct tape to built dragons, time machines and mini puts. Art seemed like a natural thing to do as an adult too. I do remember my guidance councillor in High School being pretty skeptical about my life plan. I’d done really well in Math and he had convinced me to apply for a scholarship. I got it, a full scholarship to Waterloo. Then, I turned it down and went to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design instead. Most parents would have told their kids to take the scholarship, but to their credit, my parents didn’t. Not a word. I won’t pretend being an artist is all smooth sailing but I love this life and those fiercely independent, creative and kind people that raised me.
MB: How long does it take for you to create an image?
EM: Oh, it really depends. When it is for a book, I give myself a couple of days. Some are quite complex. There is the planning too and sometimes it just doesn’t feel right and I need to redo it. Other times, especially when I am just playing in the studio, I can create several images in a day that I like. It is a really different process.
MB: Do you have a number of theatres or do you complete one image and then take it down? It must be terribly hard to take a theatre apart!
EM: I have a couple of theatres. I leave an image up until I get the image approved from a publisher. I go on to the next image in the other theatre. The layers of paper are taken down quite easily. I hold things up with tape and wires.
MB: How did you make the leap to children’s books?
EM: I always thought it would be a wonderful job. When I was in university my illustration professor had me do his overflow work and I really enjoyed it. I did a few things for children and my prof set up a meeting with a publisher for me. It was a great opportunity but I wasn’t ready. Later, after I had my daughter I thought I’d work on a portfolio. I put my work on Etsy (https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/theaterclouds) and an agent found me there.
MB: How did the idea for Red Sky at Night come about?
EM: It actually started as another book. The book was called Clouds. The manuscript was as nebulous as the topic. I couldn’t figure out how to put words to it. In the meantime, I was playing with these old weather sayings. I found them so interesting and the science behind them too. They fit the theme but not the story I had already submitted. My wonderfully kind publisher, Tara Walker said I could move forward with Red Sky at Night instead. But... the original Cloud story hasn’t left me. Maybe someday.
MB: Your mother wrote a book about pop-up books. Have you considered doing a pop-up book yourself?
EM: I love pop-ups. I think it would be such fun, and while I love making pop ups, I don’t know how I would go about taking the paper engineering itself that would work for a book and translating it into something for a publisher to have cut and printed. I’d love to learn.
MB: Is there a classic children’s book that you would like to illustrate?
EM: I think a classic would work well with my illustration style. It is nice to have something familiar when the illustrations are unusual. It is tricky though. So many classics are already beautifully illustrated and who would want to try to compete with that.. like Wind in the Willows. Or the classics are stuck in a time that I don’t want to travel to. Anne of Green Gables was an exception. L. M. Montgomery was ahead of her time. There are some writers telling stories that create new mythologies/tales. That really appeals to me.
MB: Do your children create their own paper theatres?
EM: My daughter does. She makes little figures to put in the theatre. My son hasn’t really. When he makes art, he tends to use his whole arm so I pull out the big roll of paper. They are both so creative in different ways.
MB: Can you tell us a bit about your next project?
EM: I’d love to. The book I’m working on right now is called The Secret Fawn, written by Kallie George. It will be published by Tundra. It is about being the smallest kid. I think it will really appeal to that youngest child in a family or to anyone that has ever had an encounter with a deer. I am just at the sketching stage, looking forward to turning those sketches into paper worlds.
My thanks to Elly for this opportunity to have a glimpse into her beautiful world of art. Pat Oldroyd