Interview: Polly Nor

The internet inspired illustrator talks socials ahead of new exhibition, It’s Called Art Mum, Look It Up.

While social media is often criticised and blamed for exacerbating a toxic culture of comparison, especially for those living their already insecurity-ridden teenage years, the democratisation of art through social media – Instagram in particular – has led to a flourishing revival of DIY culture featuring zines, illustrations and embroidery. Away from images of perpetual holiday-makers and detox tea, lives pockets of creatives using the ‘gram to get their message to the masses and carve out successful careers.

One such creative is illustrator and artist Polly Nor, who, as an art graduate, took to searching for a job in the industry to no avail. It was only when she began posting illustrations on Instagram, depicting the relatable, fraught relationship between female characters and their demonic alter-egos, that Nor was able to make a name for herself.

Teaming up with Red Bull Studios, the artist is about to take her illustrations offline and into the realm of bricks and mortar for a second time, as new show It’s Called Art Mum, Look It Up – a follow up to 2015’s debut of the same name – opens at Protein Studios. We caught up with Polly for the lowdown.

So what’s your background and how did you get into illustration?

I was born and raised in London. I went to Acland Burghley School in North London which had a really good art department – I was always really into drawing – so after college I went on to do a foundation year at LCC. When it came to my degree I wanted to move away from home for a bit so I went on to study Illustration at Loughborough University. That was a bit of a weird decision because it’s such a sporty uni but it had a good reputation for illustration. It wasn’t really the place for me, it had a real posh rugby lad culture and I didn’t really fit in with that, so after three years I was happy to be back home.

After uni I did the whole internship thing while working in retail and tried for years to find a job in the arts and got nowhere. I gave up job searching, started temping in admin roles, and made sure I spent all my free time drawing and uploading it online; luckily it just kind of grew from there. Now I work as a full time artist/illustrator and have my own online store.

How has social media – Instagram in particular – changed the world of art and illustration do you think?

It’s hard for me to say because I wasn’t in the art world until I started using Instagram, but in my experience, it has been a really vital. I don’t think art would have been a viable career for me without it. Instagram culture definitely has its faults, but it’s a really useful platform for creatives to self-publish artwork and get it seen. You no longer have to be some old rich guy represented by a big gallery for people to see your work. Obviously, the art world still has a long way to go in terms of inclusivity but now that anybody with a smart phone can share their work, curate their own online gallery and develop their own following, I feel like we are seeing much more accessible and relatable art online.

Instagram was named as the worst social media outlet for women in terms mental health and body image. Do you see your work as a counter to that? And how important is it that women have that more honest alternative to contrived beach shots and “perfection”?

I mean I’m not surprised by that. Growing up I had a lot of insecurities. I’d always be obsessing over anything about myself that I saw as imperfect, despite actually being quite conventionally good looking, I would always find some part of myself to hate: my spotty skin, the bags under my eyes, my stomach, my tits. This is something that I feel like too many young girls are taught to do in our society as we are conditioned from a really young age to believe that our value lies wholly in how well we fit in to a very narrow ideal of beauty within our culture.

I feel like it must be worse for girls growing up now, with Instagram and Snapchat. Surely being constantly bombarded with edited photos of surgically reconstructed ‘perfect’ bikini selfies of the Kardashians and Instagram models, it can’t be great for young girls that are growing up and in to their adult bodies. So yeah, I hope that the women that are feeling insecure in their own skin might come across my work somewhere in the sea of selfies, sponsored weight loss adverts and body shaming memes, look at my work and feel slightly less alone with those feelings.

Why do you think that feminist art, DIY Culture and zine culture has made such a resurgence recently?

There is obviously a massive gender imbalance when it comes to the art world. Most big galleries are known for representing male artists way more than female artists, and the British media is also far from being a diverse industry. So I think lots of people are now looking for unconventional routes into those fields. Thanks to social media it’s now also becoming easier to self-publish and connect with a world wide audience of like-minded people.

Your work often features a woman and a demonic figure. Can you explain the roles that both these characters play (within your work)?

The relationship between the female characters and their demons comes in part from the saying to ‘face your demons’. Most of my pieces are about the relationship the female character has with herself but it varies from piece to piece. Generally, I see them as a figment of the female’s imagination, a manifestation of her emotions.

Can you describe your creative process?

I usually just sit down and try to visualise however I’m feeling and whatever is on my mind at that moment in time. I map out the basic shape of my characters in pencil, then I draw out the whole image in pen, scan, and then colour digitally.

What can we expect from your new exhibition and how does it differ from your debut?

This will be a much bigger exhibition in a bigger venue. As well as showing a full collection of my hand drawn and digital illustrations of my women and their demons, I’ve also been working on an installation room and some large scale previously unseen 3D sculpture work.

Amazing. You decided to name the show It’s Called Art Mum, Look it Up. Aside from the play on the “It’s called fashion. Look it up” catchphrase, how did you come to this name?

Ha! I decided to call it It’s Called Art Mum, Look It Up after receiving a lot of messages from teenage girls saying that they wanted to buy a print or get a tattoo of one of my pieces but their mum wouldn’t let them because they thought it was too weird. This show is going to be much weirder than the last one that’s for sure.

Finally, what’s the biggest difference between producing images for Instagram and producing work to be shown IRL?

The biggest issue I have at the moment is a lack of space! My work has definitely outgrown my studio, I’m trying to sneak my sculptures in to any free space. There are currently piles of ‘human’ skins made of liquid latex and giant devil arm sculptures taking up most of the corridors. Thankfully the other girls I share with are being very understanding but I’m going to have to find them new homes after my show!

It’s Called Art Mum, Look It Up is at Protein Studios from 18th-22nd August; full info here.

Isabel Finch
Interview: Polly Nor

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