Jean Elise of Toys by Jean Elise is passionate about the world, and about bringing the world into the everyday play of children. Her toys are colorful and playful, but they also take kids seriously: from play money, to notebooks for documenting backyard discoveries, these are the types of toys for the truly curious. Learn more about Jean Elise’s travels and passions that make her so good at connecting with kids and making brilliant toys.
1| How do you describe your work to people who don’t know anything about crafting/art?
I aim to create work that inspires children to be inquisitive and imaginative and make discoveries in the natural world. I want to spark their interest in looking at bugs or get them intrigued to learn more about countries all over the world. To create my toys and games, I draw upon interesting and educational aspects of world culture and the natural world. I design toys and kits that allow children to explore and grow in ways that make sense with various stages of development.
2| Why do you make/design things?
Because it’s fun! I also think it’s just inherit in my nature. As a child I was constantly drawing and making. I have a very specific memory of me and a friend wanting to throw a birthday party for our stuffed animals. I spent the entire play time making tiny hats, treat bags, candies (out of paper and rubber bands) and little costumes for them. I never even got to the part of “having” the party! The joy for me was the process of creating all the tiny things, and I really haven’t changed the much when I think about it!
3| Tell us about your creative process. Is everything hand-drawn? How does an idea become a final product?
I begin creating most of my toys by exploring a subject matter that I notice many children are interested in, or a special niche interest that a few children I know hold dear. For example, I’ve observed many children lovingly select small treasures they spy when playing outside or on nature walks. It’s a fantastic introduction to the natural world. I then ask myself, what’s a way a child could take this interest a little bit further? What about a special box where they store all of their treasures? This keeps their specimens safe, tidy and accessible. An additional step further would be to include a small catalogue book so young naturalists can begin the practice of recording what they find. They can write (or have someone help them write) the date and location, what the object is and what their observations are about this object. They might write about how the object looks, feels, sounds, or even what it smells like. In other words the object’s phenotype. They are not “pretending” to be scientists, they are scientists. They are doing the work of a naturalist – so how do I embody that in my product? There’s a lot of effort that goes into the writing and the wording, and the kit design in that regard. After the concept and writing is figured out, I move on to how to execute the product with the resources and materials available to me. My business is just me, my toys are not produced in a factory, so I have to figure out how I alone can produce what I need for my toys and kits to work. Once I’ve got a good idea of what the each product entails, I start to draw and design. All illustrations are hand-drawn by me with good old paper and pencil. I then ink them, scan them in and tweak them on my computer to be easier to use my design software. I’m completely self-taught in all the design software and am always learning new little tricks and tips. Then it’s just a matter of printing and putting it all together. Then packaging, distributing, selling, etc. Then, after a bit of time, I go back to that original design and re-do some or all. These changes might be due to new materials or tools I now have, a change in personal style, a change in the goal of the product, or it might reflect feedback from customers, friends or fans. Kinda neat that I have some fans, right? They are super great and I feel so loved when they shoot me a message, like something of mine on social media, or stop by my booth at a show. The creative process, as you might imagine, never really ends!
4| What do you love about your job?
Running away in my head with a concept for a new kit or toy is so dreamy. How can I make something for children who have a penchant for mycology? Astronomy? Cartography? What about the kiddos who want to know everything there is to know about bridges? Or ants? Air ships? Foods of the world? And then there are kids that would love to learn a new skill, like drawing. Or sewing. Maybe even fortune telling? Creating toys that fuel a child’s specific interest is pretty special.
5| What is the biggest challenge in making toys for kids?
The biggest challenge for me is, more or less, figuring out what to prioritize. There’s just a lot that I want to do, and everything takes a chunk of time! Especially if I want to do it the way that I want to do it, which sadly doesn’t always get to be the case. I have big dreams for things I want to include with my toys or games, but again, since it’s me and not a whole factory, I have to pick and choose what makes sense for me to produce at any given moment. That’s tough! I’m also, in a way, competing with so many toys that have more bells and whistles – electronic toys and apps that of course can do things my toys and kits can’t. There’s a very old-fashioned feel about my toys and kits and finding a place for that can be hard. There are a LOT of inexpensive plastic toys in this world. Some of them are favorites and get played with again and again and can be passed down from kid to kid. Some, however, can get boring pretty easily and get tossed in short order. They sit in landfills and take who knows how long to decompose. I’m pretty determined to make toys from materials that can be recycled and can actually decompose. I don’t want my toys to be another plastic thing thrown in a toy box. I’ve got a background in Montessori education, and a major component of that educational approach is to only offer children beautiful materials made from more natural materials, like ceramics, baskets and wooden tools. This shows a respect to children by honoring their aesthetic needs while also helping them learn how to respect the materials and resources available to them. That’s important to me and I work hard to try to embody that sentiment in every toy and kit.
6| Was being a working artist always your plan or was there an “aha” moment?
Hm, neither really. It just slowly, slowly started to occur. Some friends (and strangers!) expressed interest in purchasing some little felt craft things I had made, and then I started sharing a booth at different markets with a friend. However, once I made my first board game Jungle Chess (which you can still purchase on my Etsy site) for a friend, I think that sealed the deal. Who doesn’t find being a professional toy-maker appealing?
7| How do you work, and where?
I get a lot of my ideas from my work with kids – I’ve worked with infants all the way up to middle school and every age in between. They are my number one inspiration, and from their interests and quirks I base the creations of my toys. I flesh out my ideas by doing research into a variety of topics – folklore, zoology, and art history. I’m inspired by turn of the century ornamentation, Korean animation, scientific drawings and various authors and other illustrators I admire. I spend a lot of time sketching at home or at cafes, then I scan my work in and digitally arrange and color them. There’s a bit of more manual work as well – cutting, sewing, gluing, sanding, etc. There’s also writing, proofing and editing work which I usually have to enlist the help of good friends to assist with! Part of my apartment I’ve converted into a studio so the bulk of my work (that can’t be done out and about) is done there.
8| I love the specificity of your toys! Do you make custom toys? If so, can you tell us about a favorite custom project?
Thank you! Specificity is definitely my jam. Also, I do make custom toys! I actually made a special variation of my play money for Conner Prairie, which was so much fun to do and a huge honor! I went there a lot as a kid with my family and my girl scout troop and thought it was such an amazing place. To know now that I have something there for other kids to use is so cool! The play money I make and sell for my own business reflects the amazing diversity in fauna we have in our country. Each of the beautiful, rainbow-colored bills features a specific region in our nation and showcases animals that live there. For the Conner Prairie bills, each paper bill features a specific habitat in Indiana and animals that dwell there. Cave salamanders and little brown bats in our caves, river otters and rainbow trout in our rivers and streams, and prairie deer mice and spur-throated grasshoppers in our prairies. Just to name a few! I loved doing the research for that project and learning more about the amazing inhabitants we share our state with!
9| If you could swap lives with another artist, who would that person be?
I’ve always admired ceramicists and potters. I have little to no skill when it comes to working with clay and envy those that do! Watching a potter use their hands to deftly turn a lump of earth into something so delicate is fascinating. It’s one of the oldest art forms and a perfect marriage of practicality and artistic expression. How poetic!
10| What makes a handmade object valuable?
A handmade object is created with intent. It requires concentration and it fulfills a purpose. Makers make things that reflect a time, a place, an emotion or a passion. When someone sees that object they might get a sense of that time, place, emotion or passion. A connection is formed. Makers recognize that someone will treasure this object – it will be played with, it will be read or listened to or watched. It will be worn or admired or given to a loved one. That’s a wonderful thought and makes it so unique – a factory produced object lacks that concentration and devotion in it’s creation. It lacks that human to human connection.
11| Using that definition, what’s the most valuable object you own?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. It’s not necessarily the most valuable but it’s up there… In the 1960’s my grandfather moved to Indonesia to teach forestry, along with his family (including my mother) and he knew lots of local artists. He purchased a handmade statue of a barong, which is a lion-like mythological creature in Indonesian. It’s utterly fantastic! In Balinese dance a barong combats a scary demon. It’s symbolic for the constant battle between good and evil. When my mother was living in Indonesia there was no TV for her to watch, so almost nightly she went to see traditional dance performances and puppet shows. I like to imagine her as a teenager sitting with her friends and watching the barong dance. I also think about my grandfather’s sense of adventure and interest in world cultures and how that influenced me – as a traveler and a maker! The intricacy in its creation and use of unusual (to me) materials demonstrate the craftsman’s talents and show me what artists used in that place at that time. It’s an object that gives me a fascinating slice of life of 1960’s Indonesia.
12| Tell us one true thing about yourself that people don’t believe when you tell them.
Besides making things, my other biggest hobby/life passion is world travel. I’ve now been to 36 countries and many of those I’ve backpacked through independently. I’ve hitchhiked in Kyrgyzstan, seen a bull sacrifice in Ghana and watched the sunrise over 800 year old temples in Cambodia. Our planet is beautiful, isn’t it?
13| Give us three more non-crafting-related details about you or your life.
I’m left handed.
I’m scared of (but also enamored with) caves.
Two of my favorite authors are Kurt Vonnegut and Haruki Marukami.