“I found this on the shore and I whooped for joy!” remarks Polly Law, of a piece of animal vertebrae. Presently, this bone functions as the tiara for The Empress In Winter, a paper doll sculpture. It will be at the Woodstock Art Museum until July 15, in Law’s solo show.
The Empress In Winter is from the series “What the Tide Brings,” which arose out of a workshop Law took with artist Christie Scheele in Cape Cod. Law spent hours walking along the shore, collecting keepsakes offered up by the tides: seagull feathers, driftwood, shells, bones. Soon she began integrating them into her art. Law’s first such work was a “Wrack Angel,” the bedraggled corpse of an angel, which looks like it’s screaming. (The title comes from the “wrack line,” the area on the beach where detritus is strewn.) This series is set in an imaginary kingdom between sea and shore. Its citizens include The Dauphine, The Messenger, The Luck-Bringer, The Royal Surrogate.
After returning to Kingston, Law began collecting oddities in the woods for a second series titled “Esopus Mystics.” At the Catskill Native Nursery, where she works, Law found a garter snake skin, which became a turban for a doll known as The Seeress.
Law is best known for her vocabulary-themed works: paper dolls illustrating such unfamiliar words as “lissotrichus,” “napiform,” and “slimikin.” Her book, The Word Project: Odd and Obscure Words Illustrated (2010), contains over 120 images. The volume was published with the help of a Kickstarer grant, and 100 subscribers. Her dolls are constructed from illustration board; the background is painted Masonite—often employing Law’s handmade stencils. Law uses acrylic paint, buttons, string, and plastic-coated wire.
A tortuous journey led Law to her present genre. She began studying glassblowing at Kent State University. (Her first semester was the one following the shootings.) After picking up the wrong end of a glass-blowing rod and badly burning her hand, Law switched to weaving and textiles. Graduating Kent State, she moved to New York City, where she worked in advertising for 20 years, doing storyboards for commercials—including five years with Continuity Associates, an agency founded by Neal Adams, the visionary comic book artist.
After moving to the Hudson Valley, Law met Pam Hastings, a paper doll artist, who commissioned her to make a doll in 2001. “I had all these bits and pieces of a doll, and I was trying to figure out how to fasten them together,” Law recalls. “The brass brads that a lot of people use have never appealed to me—they’re too big and clunky, and sort of boring. I was just walking around, and I saw my button jar, and thought, ‘I’ll sew them together with buttons!’ I absolutely fell in love with the technique, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
In this show, all but one of the characters are female—unless you count the angels. “I consider the Wrack Angel figures to be male, because technically all angels are male—according to the Bible,” Law explains. Another series, “When I Talk About Love,” features dolls with tiny boxes cut into their chests, each revealing an inner truth: a rusted screw, a cinder, a moon, a golden filament. Paper dolls are paralyzed, helpless. They await the warm, adoring hands of a young child to bring them to life.
“Polly M. Law, Solo Show” will be at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum until July 15. Law will give an artist’s talk on Sunday, July 8 at 1pm. For more information, call (845) 679-2940; Woodstockart.org