Polly Fern is a freelance illustrator, ceramist and canary keeper based in Norwich. Having graduated from Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) a few years back we are delighted to be showcasing her work this year at our Houghton Hall exhibition. Here is an extract of an article published in Ceramic Review:
My work is inspired by my childhood; I’m interested in discovering and sharing local stories, particularly garden stories and folk art. I grew up in the Norfolk countryside but now live in Norwich city. Wildlife is always present in my work, and I love the rich history of Norwich city and discovering its secrets. My ceramics are for ornamental use, acting as artifacts to document stories I’ve uncovered.
I graduated from my illustration course last year. I’m 21 and studied Illustration at Norwich University of the Arts, before going straight into working as a freelance illustrator. I recently joined a ceramics studio full-time instead of doing ceramics lessons, which I had previously taken for a few months whilst studying. I managed to create my whole body of degree show work in this short space of time.
I started drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. I remember being young and drawing a lot of strange animals and characters, but it wasn’t until I was close to finishing high school that I realised it was something I was skilled at. I consider myself first and foremost an illustrator, but that alone wouldn’t satisfy my constant urge to make and learn new crafts. I am always learning something new so I probably don’t really sit in a single craft area.
The way people represent their personalities through the objects they own fascinates me. I remember being in my grandma’s annex and everything she owned would have a cow printed onto it. She was brought up in the countryside and ran a dairy farm with my granddad. Nobody in my family is an artist, but I would say that we are all artistic in a certain sense. My father is a very skilled cabinetmaker; his dad was a cobbler, which again is a creative craft. My mother loves gardening and has a great eye for colour.
I’m influenced by a broad range of illustrators. I look up to a lot of children’s book illustrators, such as Martin and Alice Provensen, and I’m fascinated by Eric Ravilious’ shop front illustrations. I also love Olive Edis – particularly her photographs of local fishermen – and Valerie Finnis’ fantastic photographs of garden people.
I enjoy seeing ceramics from all periods and locations under one roof. I love visiting the ceramics collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum, as it’s so vast. I particularly enjoy Staffordshire figurines and delftware, with its depiction of everyday life and rich cultural history.
Everything I make is hand built. I like the feel and act of a hand-drawn line in my ceramic work, so I see hand-building everything as important. I share a studio space with other ceramists and it’s just down the road from where I live. I have my own kiln, but sadly no-where to house it, so I’m hoping to build an outside studio in the near future. I hand build everything, predominantly working with earthenware and using slips and underglazes. A lot of chromium and cobalt oxide is used throughout my ceramic work; I love the natural pigmentation of the oxides and its historical roots in pottery.
I hand paint all of my decoration. I paper-cut a lot of my illustrations and then use the paper resist technique on raw ceramic, painting upon them with slip and peeling away the paper, then working back into the resist shapes with glazes and oxide details. It’s quite a labour-intensive process; with each piece I make taking a lot of time. But the process is important to my work and I wouldn’t enjoy it as much if it were straightforward.
I started posting on Instagram when it first came out. I posted my interests, places I visited, and my paintings. I soon found myself building quite a following and people from around the world wanted to purchase my paintings, which was amazing. I then carried on posting regularly on Instagram throughout my university studies. I find it a great way to document ideas and works in progress, which has helped to develop my practice. At the same time, people were watching my practice progress and I think they enjoy seeing the process behind all my illustrations and ceramics.
I’m a canary keeper and I regularly post pictures of them. They live in my studio at home and are often flying around the place while I’m working, which people love to see. I try to post daily but if I don’t have anything to post, I won’t. I don’t usually add much writing; if I do, it’s simply concerned with annotating the picture, piece or painting – maybe explaining the ideas behind a piece or process.
I hope to carry on exploring ceramics, as I haven’t been practicing for very long. All my work is quite miniature but I would like to begin making some bigger, more sculptural pieces. I have lots of illustration projects I would like to take on, such as to illustrate a children’s book or to design a range of fabrics. I would also like to organise an exhibition as soon as I feel I’ve built up enough new work to curate and display.