Polly Law’s studio is perched above Uptown Kingston, filled with light and a treasure trove of stuff, from buttons and miniature faux gears to feathers and flotsam from the Hudson River and other bodies of water. Her singular artworks – a pastiche of elements that come together in the form of paper dolls with a stylized and somewhat macabre aura about them – line the walls. She calls what she does bricolage, and describes how she followed a career in illustration, including a number of years as a major force at the Graphic Artists’ Guild in New York. She’s working to meet a couple of deadlines for submissions and mulling over her latest works.
How did she get started with this singular line of work? “It was in a roundabout way, like so much in one’s life,” Law replies, explaining how she became an expert in visual copyright matters while at the Guild and the Society of Illustrators, eventually taking her interests to the point where she now does a radio show on WAMC’s Vox Pop about the subject several times each year. “I was talking with the artist Pam Hastings, who works with paper dolls, about collage and copyright matters, and she suggested I make a paper doll. So I started working on one…”
She pulls out a magical portrait doll of the English writer Vita Sackville-West and talks about the choices that she had to make when she joined the pieces together. “I didn’t like the look of brass brads. You have to recall, this was before scrapbooking became such a big thing,” Law adds. “So I started looking around the house and saw my button jar. I just fell in love with the process.”
Moreover, the longtime illustrator loved the way that style and technique came together in bricolage, just at a time when she was feeling a shift in her illustration work. “I wasn’t willing to jump through the hoops anymore” is how she puts it.
“I called it bricolage because that seems to fit the materials I work with,” Law says. “The word refers to ‘the artful use of what’s at hand.’ It’s not assemblage, which includes making something from things that are things in themselves; and it’s not collage, which is where you use a picture of a comb, say, to represent one in a piece. In my art, I make a comb out of toothpicks.”
As inspiration, and examples of other artists working in her idiom, Polly Law speaks of the artist Joseph Cornell and the animator Jan Svankmajer. But then she adds how in the final round, she’s “just doing what feels right to me,” including losing any ideas of being a purist. The concept is always to create something that feels strong in itself, whether Law’s using acrylic paints or bookbinder’s thread, things picked up on walks or faux gears and other items bought at a craft shop.
Law worked in New York City in the field of graphics and layout and became an illustrator. She got kicked out of some art classes along the way, but she’s proud that she stuck to her own vision, her own techniques. I note Law’s Icarus-like images around us. They make sense, given the flights of fancy and difficulties faced by such an artist, flying toward her creative goals.
Eventually, Law headed upriver to Saugerties, where she rediscovered the pleasures of small-town life and was able to concentrate on her art yet maintain ties to her leadership positions in the City.
In the years between her move from Saugerties to Kingston, Law got to know many of the area’s artists. She joined the Woodstock Artists’ Association and Museum and helped work on the Saugerties Artists’ Studio tour. She found a community that supported her work.
She has several exhibitions on the horizon including a two-person show on Cape Cod. Law is also working to animate her pieces with Flick Book Studio owner Keiko Sono.
“Thirty percent of a piece is there in the ideas, 30 percent comes from exploration and 30 percent from pure play,” she says of her process. “I’m not that abstract a thinker, but I am not a realist either…I work with what the tide brings in, and what’s in my head…”
For more on artist Polly Law, including her various series and a recent book of word-based pieces, visit www.buttonwoodart.com.