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Photos: Inside Elly MacKay’s studio

(photo: Katrina Cervoni)

Paper theatre, light-box illustration, illuminated papercraft ““ call it what you will, the images that Elly MacKay creates using paper, pen-and-ink figures, an open-sided “theatre,” and the manipulation of light are stunning.

Based in Owen Sound, Ontario, MacKay began making Victorian-­style tunnel books and dioramas as a teen, and now combines those paper-art skills with photography to produce her images. Her first picture book, If You Hold a Seed, published by Running Press last February, showcases her unique photographs and quietly lyrical text. A second title, Shadow Chasers, is due out this May. Both books reflect on what MacKay calls the “fleeting, wonder-filled moments” of childhood when “something magical happens,” and are inspired by the author’s memories of growing up on the shores of Georgian Bay and the experience of seeing the world anew through the eyes of her two young children.

It was the birth of her daughter in 2008 that lured MacKay back into the studio after an unproductive period that came on the heels of her graduation from NSCAD University, where she studied illustration and printmaking. “I think women get a sort of creative energy when they have a kid, and also need something for themselves that’s just time alone,” she says.

MacKay put that solitary time to good use, creating so many images she decided to open an Etsy store, called Theater Clouds, which just hit sale number 5,000. In addition to clearing out her studio space, Theater Clouds attracted the attention of a U.S. agent at the Bright Agency (which arranged the two-book deal with Running Press) and various publishers. MacKay’s images grace a new edition of Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s The Best Gifts, published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside last August, and Fall Leaves by U.S. author Loretta Holland, due from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt later this year. And ““ a coup for any good Canadian girl ““ MacKay is producing cover art for the Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon box sets forthcoming from Random House. “I read them all as a kid,” says MacKay. “The 12-year-old me is so excited.”

It would be fair to call MacKay’s output prolific, if not downright speedy. The author estimates that, on top of her publishing commitments, she produces two standalone pieces per week. A complete picture book might take two to three months to illustrate, but comes with its own particular challenges, given the inherently intuitive nature of her process. “It’s really playing, I just play in the theatre,” she says. “But when I’m working on a book, I have to get the shot I promised I would get.”

That doesn’t always happen, but MacKay says that, so far, publishers have been happy with her work. Given how many projects she has lined up or is currently working on (including the early stages of her third picture book for Running Press, tentatively titled Butterfly Park), it’s a safe bet that it won’t be just MacKay’s Etsy shop picking up more fans in the coming months. Consider this her breakout year.

Click on the thumbnails to take a peek at MacKay’s process.

This story appeared in March 2014 issue of Q&Q.