Illustrator and veritable Instagram celeb Polly Nor’s work can easily be summed up as “women and their demons”, but as with most things, there’s more to it than that. Her images are bold in their colours and strong in their use of black linework, but behind the apparent simplicity lie a knotty range of issues including mental health struggles and the enduring tension between expectations on women to be both sexually attractive but not sexually promiscuous. Creating square framed portraits of the modern female condition, she manages to use humour and surreal imagined scenes to tap into our collective woes.
Just how far they’ve resonated with people is obvious in her huge online following, which has led to her work applied across a successful line of t-shirts and phone cases, as well as a music video and Secret Garden Party installation collaboration with animator Andrew Baker.
We had a quick chat with the artist ahead of the opening of her new solo show at Protein in east London, which opens later this month.
CR: What can we expect from the exhibition?
PN: I’ve got a lot of illustration and hand drawn original black line drawings, and I’ve made an installation too. It’s taking elements from my illustrations, so obviously a lot of those are the devil getting in and out of human skin, and bedroom scenes. So I’ve recreated a bedroom with the same colours and black lines, and there will be skins in a wardrobe…
CR: Why do you think so many of your images are situated in bedrooms?
PN: Most of my work isn’t about thinking up a concept or idea, but instead I sit down and visualise how I’m feeling at the time. A lot of that happens in my bedroom. Also growing up in London there weren’t many places to play out, so we’d spend a lot of time in our rooms. When I was younger I had depression for a while, and literally spent days in bed.
CR: I love the the title of the show, It’s Called Art Mum, Look It Up, where did that come from?
PN: I often have people tweeting online and asking how they’d ask their mum to buy a phone case or T-shirt for them. It came straight from that.
CR: Your online following is massive: how much of a role has Instagram had in your career?
PN: Basically I don’t know where I’d be without Instagram. It happened really quickly – probably about a year ago I had 100,000 followers, now it’s more than 700,000. With each piece of work you post you can see how many new people follow you. At the beginning it was quite frustrating as after my first exhibition [in 2015, also in Shoreditch] I suddenly saw people turning my work into memes, so it travelled the world on the internet and I was never credited most of the time. I felt it was devalued at the time, but then people found out that I was the artist and in the end it helped me get to a point where I can just live off being an artist. I have my shop but I don’t really do much commissioned work.
CR: That must have been quite hard seeing your work being used and modified without any sort of control over it.
PN: At the time it felt really personal to me, but now that I’m doing ok it’s nice to see how other people relate to it. When I was starting off, drawing this sort of stuff was a reaction to how I was feeling. So in a way the fact other people can relate to it means I’m not that weird.
I’ve had a history of people printing my t-shirts themselves, but I think a lot of it is younger people who don’t know that’s wrong! People even tag me in pictures when they’ve done that.
It’s Called Art Mum, Look It Up by Polly Nor is on show at Protein Studios from August 18-22; the exhibition is created in partnership with Red Bull Studios