Ahead of her new exhibition, Airing My Dirty Laundry, we catch up with London-born illustrator Polly Nor in our third edition of Over the Counter Culture to talk sea demons, fashion fads, and using art as therapy.
London-born and London-bred, Polly Nor has built a huge following, first on Instagram and more recently offline, with her distinct illustrations that chart the perils of the modern world and modern womanhood. A reasoned voice in today’s anxiety-ridden internet age, Polly’s artwork is something young women can actually relate to, even when it gets somewhat abstract. It’s this sense of realness that’s led to her meteoric rise, which now culminates in a new exhibition of unseen work at Protein Studios, the third public show she’s put together. In-between all the frantic preparation, she’s come to the store to chat, and she’s as relatable in real life as she is online. “I kind of like the more classically styled shoes instead of the more ‘out there’ trainers. I’d normally go for Converse or something…”
Whilst aiming to find out just how she comes up with characters and scenarios that pepper her work, we first chat about her style and how the concept of womenswear has somewhat caught up with the concept of modern femininity. She explains how normally she’d go for comfort in terms of the clothes she wears, but she likes to mix up outfits so they’re ‘somehow a bit fun’ too. As if to demonstrate the point, she’s wearing a silk two-piece with adorned with silver and black tiger stripes. “At the moment I like bright colours and patterns. This is silk – by Ganni. It’s not the most practical of things but yeah, normally if I'm going to the studio I'll wear boilersuits or very casual clothes, just something I can be comfortable in because I don't see many people day-to-day.”
Polly says she’s more drawn to brands like LF Markey or Ganni, the former providing more practical construction, the latter providing a range of classic wardrobe pieces, but both united in their distinctly contemporary styling. She also wears a lot of jewellery, which ranges from hand-me-downs and vintage pieces from second-hand shops in Holloway to more modern, bespoke pieces by London designers such as Georgia Kemball. But since tackling modern womanhood is a recurring theme to her work, does she incorporate the ideas of contemporary womenswear?
Polly wearing a tiger print Ganni two-piece, a grey shirt jacket and grey suede Converse One Star sneakers.
“With my characters, I'll always just try and draw stuff in that I like wearing at the time, and I quite like the idea of trapping it in that time. So yeah, quite a lot of fashion fads have got in there, but in general, it's stuff that I would feel comfortable in because most of my drawings reflect my own experience.”
Looking at her process as an artist, it’s interesting to find out where the ideas come from, and how she hones in on the story given the fact her work is so narrative. She explains that normally she’ll just sit down and try and visualize what she’s thinking about at the time, drawing in pencil first, before going over the sketch in pen. Doing so makes her think more about the concepts behind the piece, which will change quite a lot until the final version. It sounds like quite a free process so, in that sense, does she just let it run? “Yeah, I never really design the images, I just try to express how I’m feeling visually.”
If a therapy session as some sort of exploration into various corners of her mind is what her creative work yields, then what’s the weirdest thing she’s drawn? She explains that it’s probably the work that’s going to be showcased in her new exhibition at Protein Studios. In a 39-part series, the main character (simply referred to as ‘she’, an idea Nor seems to carry through her body of work) falls in love with a sea demon in a narrative which explores the patterns of toxic relationships, and their effect not only on those involved but on those closely related, be it loved ones or friends. “I think I like to use these characters to represent more meaningful things, but on the surface, it’s her having a romance with a sea worm… [laughs]”
Depictions of devils, women, and hidden identities are typical to Polly's illustrations.
Romance and relationships may be the age-old theme that runs through art and music, but Polly’s work also acts as an exploration of the more modern perils of the contemporary world. To her, it’s a completely different time to that of her parents’ generation. It’s harder for young people to have enough security to be thinking about having a family or doing the seemingly ‘grown-up’ things the previous generation would have been doing at the equivalent point in time. Then, add in the advent of social media and the idea of the world becoming even more image-obsessed and in Polly’s mind, we undoubtedly live in more stressful times. Unsurprisingly, she reckons they don’t really get it and, fittingly, her last exhibition was entitled “It’s Called Art Mum, Look It Up”. But for all of the modern era’s perils, she seems to have done surprisingly well from the tools she critiques. Does she feel conflicted about this, or is it just the same conflict we all have with these platforms?
“I think most people that I know don’t like their use of social media but still use it. I kind of like the idea of making work about that thing and releasing it into that platform as well. I don't think that social media is necessarily a bad thing, I think all the issues we have, conflict, body image issues, that people always point to Instagram about, they were definitely there before. But I don't think that they always help in those situations. But then, people can also use Instagram and social media to do positive things as well. I do think I would like to be not so glued to my phone all the time [laughs].”
Polly explains how she’s changed the way she uses Instagram, narrowing down her feed so she only follows artists that she likes or creative things that she feels are positive for her to be looking at. One could argue that the anxieties that come with social media platforms are surely just symptomatic of being young, and its add-ons of wanting to follow trends or appear cool, or being obsessed with self-image, but she counters this point by saying that if you’re given the opportunity to present yourself how you want to be presented, then you’re always going to do that. Keeping up appearances is just basic human nature. Finally, wrapping up our chat comes the question what she’d be doing if she weren’t an illustrator, which prompts a moment’s pause. “Good question. I think, before I managed to do anything with my art, I was interested in training in art therapy. I like the idea of using art as a therapeutic technique. I guess that’s how I use my artwork as well.”
Airing My Dirty Laundry runs Thursday 11th October to Wednesday 17th October at Protein Studios, Shoreditch.
Visit www.pollynor.com for more.
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