Polly Nor

It's Art Mum, Look it Up

Interview by Kristin Farr // Portrait by Ian Cox 

Read Polly Nor’s work at face value, relish her drawings of devilish, mischievous imps, but then dig into the layers, and you’ll find characters and narratives that deftly mirror our current state of affairs and the omnipresent dark turns the world is taking. Internet addiction, misogyny, and judgemental jerks are heavy presences in Polly’s world. Her work stands up to them, claiming power and giving none of the expected fucks. And, in this way, her work is art, by definition, no matter what the trolls say.

Kristin Farr: Last we spoke, you mentioned that your characters are housebound women. Why are they stuck inside?
Polly Nor: Most of my drawings are, in some way, influenced by my own experiences of life. London was a cool city to grow up in; you meet loads of different kinds of people and there’s always art or music stuff going on. But when you’re young and have no money, there aren’t many places for you to hang out, so, growing up, we ended up spending a lot of time at home in our bedrooms. Then, throughout my teens, I’d spend most of my days in my room not being able to get out of bed. I’d stay up on the computer all night and then sleep away the whole day. It’s a habit that I have only managed to overcome in the last few years, probably just because I’m so busy with work, and my studio is only open in the day, so that has really forced me out of my nocturnal tendencies.

Polly Nor: It's Art Mum, Look it Up

Internet addiction is scary territory. I don’t even know how to ask about it because I have it.
Since I first had dial-up on my family computer, I’ve had a very unhealthy relationship with the internet. A lot of my work is influenced by my own unhealthy internet habit, as well as the habits of those around me. We now live in a totally hedonistic and narcissistic society, dependent on technology for our social contact, entertainment, and sexual gratification. This is something I draw a lot of material from.

Has the internet expanded the definition of art? This is an obvious yes...
Definitely. Social media, Instagram in particular, has become a really useful platform for creatives to self-publish artwork and get it seen. You no longer have to be some old rich white 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 an internet 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. I love following the development of new young artists from around the world. 

Like many creative women with a platform, you get trolled online. Has this affected your perspective or given you any insight? 
Nothing seems to piss off the trolls quite like a woman with her own opinion on the internet. All of my favorite female writers and artists get loads of abuse online and, at times, it can get really personal and dark. It makes me feel pretty lucky with the small amount of trolling I receive. As shit as it must be for those women, I guess it’s also a sign of their success. At the end of the day, they are out there doing cool things and achieving their goals, while some person they don’t even know exists is sitting behind their computer screen, plotting ways to try and bring them down. It’s kind of obvious who the winner is in that situation.

Polly Nor: It's Art Mum, Look it Up

The stuff I get is usually quite funny. It makes for good Twitter content, anyway. Recently, a site called Bored Panda posted an article about my work, and their readers hated it. It got ripped to shreds. I don’t think I can even call it trolling because they genuinely just really disliked my art, which is fair enough! Basically, the general consensus of their readers was that I have a personality disorder, I hate women and myself, I draw like a disturbed prisoner, and I should probably be locked up in a mental hospital. I had never really had that much negative feedback until I read the comments on that article. When my Instagram following was spiraling out of control and almost every comment was a young girl writing, “Same,” global brands like Gucci started hitting me up to work with them, which was really surreal and cool, but the pessimist inside of me couldn’t help worrying that perhaps I was becoming too mainstream. Reading those comments on Bored Panda really dragged me back down to Earth. The one I can clearly remember was somebody comparing my work to a shit on a doorstep. Something like, “If I shit in front of your doorstep, it will also generate feelings, but it won’t become art.” That one was pretty good.

The demons in your drawings seem friendly lately, like they are supporting the women they surround, holding them up. 
I don’t think of the demons in my work as an evil force like in most cultural depictions of the devil. I guess my interpretation of them comes, in part, from the saying about facing your demons. Most of my pieces are about the relationship the female character has with herself, but sometimes they are outside forces. It kind of varies from piece to piece. Sometimes the demons are destructive and menacing, but at times they’re also comforting and protective.

Polly Nor: It's Art Mum, Look it Up

Do you find source material online, or does it come from various random places?
I don’t actively source material, but when I’m on my phone, I screenshot anything I find visually interesting, like a virtual scrapbook. I draw from my imagination, but sometimes I’ll get stuck on how to draw a foot at a certain angle, and I will either have to take pictures of myself in that position for a visual reference, or I will Google image search “woman crouching on one knee,” “woman riding horse,”or, “woman sitting on toilet,” which usually ends up with me getting distracted by all the hilarious Shutterstock photoshoots of models in satin lingerie awkwardly trying to make the most mundane, unsexy poses sexy.

Why are you compelled to draw devils as a figurative way to represent desire, frustration and other feels?
I use the devil characters to represent different ideas and stories each time. Generally, I see them as a figment of the female’s imagination, a manifestation of her emotions. I enjoy the limitation of using the same two subjects—the woman and the demons—but capturing something new each time. My best pieces definitely come from times that I have been going through my own personal struggles. I have always had really intense mood swings, and at those times, I don’t even have to think about what to draw, it kind of all just flows out of me.

My work is very much influenced by how I’m feeling at the time. My best pieces came out of my last breakup a few years ago. It was a really shit time. I was broke, living at home, and couldn’t find a “real” job, so I just poured all my emotions into my art. That’s when I figured out that making new work and drawing from my own frustrations made me feel really good, kind of like therapy. So I started spending all of my spare time in my studio, and since then, I haven’t really stopped. Now that I’m in a really good, healthy relationship, I’m actually finding it more of a challenge to keep creating the same style of illustration work. I’ve got nothing to be angry about and it totally sucks, ha!

How else has your work evolved since we chatted last year?
It’s been a crazy year; pretty non-stop. I’ve been doing more illustration work and developing my online store. I’ve worked on a few animations with director Andy Baker, and I’ve been experimenting with some 3D work. I’m taking key elements from my illustrations, like the human skins and the worm-like devil arms, and making them into large-scale sculptures out of paper mache, Modroc plaster and latex. I first showed them at my solo show in London. It was the first time in ages that I worked on anything without sharing it online, so it was exciting to see people’s reactions in person for the first time.

What have been some favorite reactions to your work?
I get a few messages from girls saying that when they’re having a bad day, they look on my Instagram and it cheers them up. That’s always really nice to hear. When I have the time, I try to read all my comments. People write some funny shit on my posts. I can’t really remember any in particular apart from one I saved to my notes: “Ur art makes my heart and my brain horny for thinking.” I liked that one, and obviously the comment comparing my work to a shit on a doorstep… can’t forget that.

Polly Nor: It's Art Mum, Look it Up

It seems you are celebrating expressions of lust and other feelings women have been conditioned to suppress. Is that fair to say?
Female sexuality is definitely something I like to celebrate within my work. When I was growing up, I went to a school called Acland Burghley in North West London. In most ways, it was a great school. It had a really good art department and I made most of my best friends there, but it was the only mixed school in a neighborhood of loads of girls schools, so it meant that girls were massively outnumbered by boys. In my class, there were only, like, 5 girls in a class of around 30, and they created a very patriarchal and, at times, predatory environment. Even when we were only 14, it seemed normal for the guys to grab your bum in the corridor, put their hands up your skirt, or grab you by the hair and force your face into their crotch. Stuff like that happened to us every day but we didn’t even think of it as abuse. Having spoken to friends from other schools, I’m told similar stories. I’m not sure if it was because were the first generation to have open access to internet porn, or because nobody spoke about consent back then (sex education was pretty much just your teacher putting a condom on a banana). But, either way, sex was thought of as something that guys were totally in control of. If a girl wasn’t up for it, she was frigid, but if she was, she was a slut. It was a lose-lose situation.

I think we’ve definitely been conditioned to feel ashamed of our sexuality and our own desires. Even now, as an adult, I still have my girlfriends messaging me having woken up next to some guy after a drunken night out and feeling ashamed and embarrassed about it all week. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of my male friends feeling guilty about getting laid.

Good point. Do you feel some of the layers of meaning in your work are overlooked because your audience is so broad?
I often draw from my own experience of female life, my relationships, how I feel about the world, how I feel about myself, the everyday day struggles and pressures that I feel and stuff that I take from the conversations I have with the women around me. But just because I am drawing female characters doesn’t mean they are only for women or that only women can appreciate them. I mean, most film and TV starring roles are male, but I can still understand and relate to those characters and enjoy those stories. That’s why I think it’s funny when men ask me, “When are you going to start drawing male characters?” Like, why do you need that from me?

Exactly. Men have enough starring roles. So, what are you working on now?
I just made an installation room called The Green Room at Secret Garden Party. It was a bedroom in the corner of a field made up to look like one of my illustrations, all pastel colors, detailed with my wonky black lines and a forest of plants growing up the walls. The viewer could walk through the corridor, into the room, and get in bed and watch the animated music video that Andy Baker and I made for Chelou’s “Halfway to Nowhere.” It was really cool working on something so different from my usual work. It’s something I brought into my recent solo show, It’s Called Art, Mum, Look it Up at Protein Studios in East London, which had an installation room, large-scale sculptural work, and a full collection of my hand-drawn and digital illustrations.

Polly Nor: It's Art Mum, Look it Up

It seems the scenery has fallen away in your drawings, and you’re focusing more on the relationships between the women and their demons. 
I go through phases with my work. I started out mainly drawing my characters in their bedrooms. I really enjoyed thinking about what each character would have in her room and drawing it all out with lots of really intricate detail. I found it really satisfying. Those bedroom scene illustrations are probably still my most popular pieces; they’re the most relatable. I like including all the really basic stuff that we all had in our childhood bedrooms—posters, pin boards, Ikea lamps and the crappy pop-up wash baskets. But, last year, thanks to Instagram’s algorithms, I kept coming across other artists’ work that looked really similar. I guess that naturally happens with art, just like any other cultural trend, but it made me want to move away from the bedroom scenes for a bit. I started switching up my color palette, and I got into drawing the more surreal forest scenes. I still revisit the bedroom scenes here and there, but I think it was important for me to push myself out of that comfort zone and start moving down a more abstract path.

Tell me about your relationship to Quasimoto and other influential music that creeps into your work. 
I’m a big fan of Quasimoto. I actually had such a fangirl moment last year when Jeff Jank (Art director for Stones Throw Records, creator of the Madlib, Doom, and J Dilla artwork, and illustrator of Quasimoto) hit me up and drew Quas into one of my pieces. That’s still probably one of the highlights of my career.

Polly Nor: It's Art Mum, Look it Up

The music I listen to definitely creeps its way into my work. I’m a real creature of habit, so when I get into a song or an album, I have to keep playing it on repeat until I’m sick of it. When I look back at particular pieces, I can remember exactly what I was listening to at the time. Growing up, I really only listened to hip hop, but now that I’m working in a shared studio, I’m trying to listen to more chill stuff that isn’t going to piss off the people around me. At the moment, I’m listening to a lot of Homeshake, Kraughbin and Charlotte Day Wilson. I also listen to the Oldboy soundtrack every day when I really need to get shit done fast. (The original Korean Oldboy, by the way, not the American version. I don’t know what music Spike Lee chose to put in that totally pointless remake of an already perfect film.)

What did you draw as a kid?
When I was really young, I liked drawing theme parks, sea horses, jelly fish, snails and snakes, but I always mainly drew girls. I used to draw them all over my school books and paint them on my bedroom walls. Naturally, the style of the characters has progressed and changed over the years, but they have definitely stuck. 

Polly Nor: It's Art Mum, Look it Up

You recently made a comic strip in nine panels on Instagram that was very poignant. Are you getting into more narrative work like this?
A Series of Nine was so much fun to work on. For the last half a year, I was so busy organizing my solo show and experimenting with new mediums that I barely had any time to sit down and draw, so I decided to take two days out, turn my emails off, and get that series finished. I slowly released each one throughout the next week, and I loved seeing people’s reactions. I definitely want to get into some more narrative-focused work.

Do you actually wear toe socks? Why do you love drawing them?
No. I spent way too many years trying to fit my feet into Foot Locker’s kid’s trainers to ever get to that level of toe separation. I like documenting the fleeting fashion phases that span my generation, like toe socks, slides, adidas shell toes, lava lamps and marabou heels.

Any current obsessions?
SZA’s Ctrl and Game of Thrones.