Jay Stelling is an illustrator, creator of Thistle-Folk, collector of things and a maker of dolls. She studied on the Foundation Diploma in Art and Design and graduated from BA (Hons) Illustration in 2018.

Jay uses papier-mâché, wire and mixed media to make handmade dolls and creatures which are completely unique. Her work featured on Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas on Channel 4 in December 2018. Her work has also been published in Art Doll Quarterly and Dolls House and Miniature Scene Magazine.

In July 2019 she successfully fundraised for, and published, her first children’s book ‘Whistle Stop Thistle’ which began as a project during her time at university.  The book is centred around the town of Whistle-Stop Thistle and the tiny people who live there.

The book is illustrated with physical, handmade models that Jay calls ‘Puppet Illustration’. All of the buildings, sets and props have been made by hand, alongside the Thistle-folk characters themselves who are puppets that can be photographed as they move through the scenes.

Image: Courtesy of Jay Stelling

We asked Jay to tell us a little more about how her ideas have come to life:

Can you tell us a little about the process you go through to make your dolls?

The process starts with a character. Whether it's a custom doll order or a personal project, I like to know who the model is going to be and what they are like. If it's a custom order, I'll ask the client for information and reference photos of the person so I can imbue that sense of personality into the model. If I'm creating a doll of a character from a book, I'll do lots of reading and researching to try and understand that character and get an idea of how they would translate into a miniature scale. If the model is a character I've invented then I will do all of this development on paper - sketching, planning and writing notes before diving into the construction.

I then work on the skeleton of the doll, which is similar to an armature used in animation. I use florist wire and skewers to make the body and then build it up with pom poms, masking tape and papier-mâché. I have to consider the build of the character, their posture and how they would walk.

I use acrylic paint to colour the skin, then add wool for hair and use repurposed fabric for the clothing.

Image: Courtesy of Jay Stelling

How did the idea of ‘puppet illustration’ come about?

I would definitely pinpoint the root of my interest in puppets and physical art to my obsessive watching of the work of Jim Henson and the stop-motion animations of Smallfilms as a child.

The idea of using puppets in illustration actually came about whilst I was completing my introductory task over the Summer before I started at Leeds Arts University. We were asked to create a series of images about ourselves and I had this idea to make a little model of myself that I could pose and photograph doing different activities.

I didn't call it Puppet Illustration at that time, it was just a quick response to a brief, but a process that I enjoyed and kept coming back to. I wasn't enjoying drawing at that point and making things with my hands seemed much more enchanting. I was worried that what I was doing wasn't illustration at all. I wobbled a little through my First Year, thinking that perhaps my work didn't fit in with what the course was meant to be and that I should be studying something else.

But in my Third year, I found myself still making these little dolls and trying to twist any brief we were given to be able to use them in my response. It was when I started thinking about the backdrops I was putting the dolls in that they became characters, and that the image began to resemble a scene or a story. My models could become illustrations if the image was deliberately assembled - considering composition, atmosphere and perspective.

Image: Thistle-Folk, Courtesy of Jay Stelling

What did you enjoy about your time at Leeds Arts University and how did the course help you in starting out professionally?

When I started the course, I was very anxious about my work and wouldn't like showing it to other people. I struggled to keep sketchbooks in fear of showing work that I didn't think was good enough and of sharing my ideas in case of them being taken. I was definitely lacking confidence at the start of my four years at Leeds Arts University.

I found it terrifying to be in group critiques with really talented artists, but this was definitely beneficial as it exposed me to different perspectives and tones of voice. Group critiques helped me learn to accept criticism and to present my work in front of a group.

Ironically, presenting my work became my favourite part of the course. At the end of each year, we would have to devise a digital presentation and stand in front of our peers and tutors to discuss what we had achieved throughout the year as well as our intentions for the next one. I had such great fun getting into character and presenting my pitch as a story or a rhyme and discovered that performing is something I really relish. I have been using this skill in my professional practice to deliver workshops and storytelling sessions.

Image: Courtesy of Jay Stelling

Do you have any tips or advice for current students or recent graduates wanting to work in your field?

I'd say to just keep making! Don't lose the passion for what you do, keep that magic happening and flowing. Also, don't feel ashamed for working a part time or even full time job that isn't in the field you want to be working in. You can still keep creating and you should not feel disappointed if you don't get that dream job straight after graduating.

Stop looking at what everyone else is doing. Be unique!

Finally, are there any future ambitions or projects in the pipeline you can tell us about?

I'm working full time at Mother Shipton's Cave in Knaresborough at the moment, making props and planning themed events for the school holidays. I like to get hands-on with research for projects, so being surrounded by the natural beauty of the Petrifying Well and discussing the legend of Yorkshire Prophetess Mother Shipton on a daily basis has played on my mind. I would like to continue learning about local folklore and legends like this to inform another puppet illustration project.