The home of artists Jay and Stephanie McClellan is located along a brick-paved street in East Falls that’s lined with trees and sizable old stone homes. But as one might expect with with a creative couple’s home, Jay and Stephanie’s is not like the rest.
The cozy abode fits in well with the other charming homes on the block. But it’s immediately apparent once one steps behind the front door that this isn’t just a home for the two artists. Massive paintings of canines—a lot of them—line the walls, while a trio of actual dogs snooze and cuddle together on the couch. It all makes sense once you come to learn Jay’s story of how his pups became household names before he did.
His first pup Tip, after all, is the face of White Dog Cafe in University City, where her puppy dog eyes and black and white fur are on display in a colorful, floor-to-ceiling painting that serves as the restaurant’s main backdrop. It was one of Jay’s first large-sized dog paintings that he sold, putting him on track to becoming the go-to portrait painter of owners’ dogs and cats in Philly and beyond.
That was in the early 2000s. But Jay’s journey to Philadelphia starts in Arkansas, where he started out as a graphic designer working for an advertising firm, designing for big-name corporations. When his mother passed away from cancer, he decided to follow in his grandmother’s and father’s footsteps and return to school to pursue his love of art. He ultimately ended up in Philly, starting a program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA).
While grieving over his mother’s death, Jay started painting empty Eames chairs, placing them on top of a bold backdrop. “My professor said, ‘Your grieving doesn’t come across in these paintings because they’re so bright and colorful. The loss isn’t there.”
That’s when Jay decided to paint something that made him happy: Dogs. As he started his program at PAFA, he began stretching his own large canvasses, using his pups as models against wallpaper-like backdrops.
When he met Stephanie, an artist herself, and they had the opportunity to move back into her childhood home in East Falls, the two-story, stone home. “The story is that the guy who built this house, he bought two lots and was going to build a big stone house like everybody else on the block,” says Jay. “Then, he spent all of his money digging the basement out because it was all solid rock. So he ended up building a small, one-story house.”
Stephanie’s parents, who now live on the same street, built upon the one-story house, adding another level. For Jay, the stone home was a perfect match. “I’m fascinated by stone houses around here, because where I grew up they didn’t have those,” he says in his Arkansas drawl.
But although it was Stephanie’s childhood home, the couple has spent the past few years making it their own, both out of want and necessity due to the property’s age.
Jay says much of their furniture is either handmade or a thrift-store find. The bookshelves in the dining room were a couple of dollars each from Goodwill. Same goes for the current sofa in the living room—with three large dogs in the house, it doesn’t make much sense to buy an expensive couch every week, says Jay.
“We replace the couch every two weeks—the dogs just completely destroy it. But they’re happier when they can be on the couch,” says Jay.
Their craftsmanship is on display in nearly every room of the house, too. The kitchen, which is behind a Dutch door off the dining area, was in need of a major updating when Jay and Stephanie moved in. Periwinkle blue cabinetry is coupled with custom countertops made by Jay that consist of long strips of wood clamped together. The two also made the farmhouse-style sink.
They’ve put their green thumbs to use outdoors, too. A large, shaded backyard has been honed over the years into a shady retreat, complete with a vegetable garden and chicken coop. Although Jay admits that their gardening has fallen to the wayside with the arrival of their baby, Sophie, in normal circumstances you’re likely to find the family in the backyard or in their respective studios.
The second floor now serves as Stephanie’s workplace, a sunny corner of the home whose walls are lined with dozens of mason jars filled with her materials. “She’s a bit of a collector,” says Jay of Stephanie, who dabbles in painting and sculpture, among “everything else.”
Meanwhile, Jay creates his bigger-than-life paintings in the home’s closed in side porch that’s awash in natural light in the late mornings and afternoons. He likes it that way: “I don’t see myself being in an artist’s studio—I won’t get any work done.”
Even after all their years of making the house their home, Jay and Stephanie say it’s a constant work in progress, especially with the new little addition to their growing family. Jay moved his studio from Stephanie’s childhood bedroom into the sunroom, for example. The bedroom that Stephanie grew up in is now Sophie’s nursery.
As for those enormous paintings scattered throughout their home? They’re there to stay. Says Jay, “I don’t paint that large anymore—a lot of the buildings here are older and have shorter doorways, so I can’t get them out of the house!”