Five Minutes with Sculptor and Taxidermist Polly Morgan

Words by
Polly Morgan

24th February 2023

Polly Morgan is a celebrated sculptor and taxidermist whose work is known for the way it plays with what appears to be, versus what is. Here she talks to SPHERE about her inaugural public art commission, the award-winning Open! Channel! Flow, its accompanying exhibition False Flags, and the part deception plays in creating false narratives in both art and life. The show launches February 27th. 

Polly Morgan
Polly Morgan with a piece from her 2020 show 'How to Behave at Home'

My personal style signature is… Overalls. I ruin any decent clothes if I work in them and, since I work whenever I can, it’s easier to find some colourful overalls and go from there. They are usually paired with big white trainers but if I need to smarten up for the school run I put on a tailored jacket to contain the bulk.

From the start of my career my work has always been about exploring… Veneers. Since learning how to skin an animal and learning about what lies beneath, I’ve realised that the surfaces of things are illusions that lead us to many false interpretations. Animals can escape death if their cladding is cute enough. Or conversely some - in the fur industry - are killed for the very same reason. It led me to become interested in all veneers, used in design, architecture and beauty. Veneers are all about concealing one (often perceived to be inferior) surface with another (superior). These misdirections happen all around us, I am currently fascinated by social media and the influence this has on the way we present ourselves. 

'I Know you Won't Last' by Polly Morgan
'I Know you Won't Last' by Polly Morgan, part of False Flags at the Royal Society of Sculptors until April 29th, 2023

Open! Channel! Flow began as… I am competitive so rarely enter competitions but the First Plinth: Public Art Award seemed to fit me and my work at just the right time. It’s awarded to an artist who has never before been commissioned to make a public sculpture and I was at a juncture where I had begun to paint directly on to casts of snakes, thus eliminating the need to use the skins beyond the moulding process. This freed me up to make work that could be displayed outdoors. I had also been exploring the technology behind nail art and using iridescent nail foils to create the luminescence on snake skin. This was always more effective in natural sunlight so I felt it was the right time to take a more ambitious approach to my sculpture. When the Olympic bid was awarded to London in 2006 I was evicted from a studio I lived and worked in on an industrial site where the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park now is. To have a work return there in its present iteration seems a neat denouement. 

Polly Morgan works on 'I Know you Won't Last' at the Royal Society of Sculptors
Polly Morgan works on 'I Know you Won't Last' at the Royal Society of Sculptors

The sculpture represents to me how we are all shaped and constrained by our environment:  the refracted light is the energy, ebb and flow of ideas, and the serpentine forms embody all life; at points intertwining, repelling and jostling for position. 

'Hanging with the Locals' by Polly Morgan
'Hanging With the locals' by Polly Morgan, part of False Flags at the Royal Society of Sculptors until April 29th, 2023

False Flags, on show inside, continues my exploration of snakes… This new body of work came about after I bought some acrylic nails to do paint tests on. They arrived packaged on a plastic ‘sprue’ just as modelling kits do. It struck me how spine-like they were, the narrowness and length resembled the vertebrae of a snake. The pointed nails on either side were like little spears or shields and it made me think of how women refer to beauty as being their ‘armour’. I discarded what I was working on and decided to have these scaled up in powder coated steel. I made a large acrylic ‘nail’ out of a pipe and skinned a snake with especially pointed scales that echoed the shape of the nail. I stretched it over my form and moulded it, casting out multiples and painting them to resemble snakes. They became the perfect confluence of everything I was interested in; snakes, beauty, veneers, packaging and minimalism and I’m delighted with them. 

Polly Morgan with her sculpture
Polly Morgan with her award winning sculpture Open! Channel! Flow at the Royal Society of Sculptors

I called it False Flags because…False Flag is a naval term to describe the practise of raising a neutral or enemy flag to misrepresent your identity or intent. My work is trying to make connections between different types of warfare; military, primal and even cultural. Animals appropriate the look of other animals or plants to either stand out, camouflage or misdirect their opponents. I would argue we do this too. The nails on my sprues, if hung horizontally, would look like bunting, flags that were originally employed as signals between ships. What are we doing if not signalling to each other every time we choose an outfit, have our nails painted or post a carefully chosen or filtered image to social media?

'I Got Wise' by Polly Morgan
'I Got Wise' by Polly Morgan, part of False Flags at the Royal Society of Sculptors until April 29th, 2023

I’m showing with Leena Similu an artist who…makes anthropomorphic ceramics inspired by the masks of her mother’s homeland, Cameroon. They are colourful, with exaggerated features and frozen mid expression. She uses shocks of human hair and they wear earrings that resemble their younger selves had they lived. We have been friends for decades and regularly share our thoughts on ageing, beauty and politics. Despite working on different continents I sometimes see her as the nearest thing I have to a studio-mate, we often work with a similar palette without even knowing what the other is doing. My new works are formal and rigid and there’s a fluidity and candour to her work that I thought would work well alongside mine.

Leena Similu
Land Relic in Pink by Leena Similu

When people come and see this show, I want them to feel/experience… Something. I’d never have the audacity to suggest how people should feel because we all arrive with different sets of experiences and beliefs that will govern our responses. What I like about the work is that to me they feel both modern and ancient, natural and artificial, so they satisfy different aspects of my character. When you’ve put that much work and thought into anything the greatest reward is a response of some kind and for them to be overlooked.

My most treasured possession is… I’m good at letting go of objects. My father was a hoarder and when we cleared his house after his death I swore to never let it happen to me. It’s a cliché but as long as my sons are on the earth I’ll cope. 

How to Behave at Home
'Unite in a Common Goal' by Polly Morgan from her 2020 exhibition, How to Behave at Home.

The energy of London at the moment feels to me to be…  Conscientious. 

If I could be anywhere in the world right now, it would be… Home with my husband and children.

My favourite place to eat in London…J Sheekey

The best exhibition I’ve seen lately is… Strange Clay at the Hayward. I love Jonathan Baldock’s work and enjoyed Lindsey Mendick’s room, but spent most of the time screaming at my 6 and 4 year old sons who wanted to wrestle on the floor in amongst the ceramics. 

The highlight of my career so far has to be…Being asked by Sarah Lucas to be in an exhibition she has curated at Firstsite, Colchester. She has long been a heroine of mine and I had no idea she knew or liked what I do.

In There, Somewhere
'In There, Somewhere" 2014, by Polly Morgan

My wellbeing and beauty essentials are…  Shoulder pads. I don’t like my sloping shoulders and find everything hangs better on me with shoulder pads. I am extremely low maintenance otherwise as I never make time for beauty rituals. 

My guiltiest pleasure is… Dolly Mixture 

I’ve been listening to the I’m Not a Monster podcast on Shamima Begum… and trying to make my mind up about a very complicated situation. I loathe lack of nuance and am suspicious of people with absolute certainty about their views. I have always been uncertain and capable of seeing both sides and I wish more people would admit to this. 

The one thing I have always wanted to do is… build a Frank Lloyd Wright style house in the countryside. 

The upcoming project I’m most excited about is… this one!

False Flags and Open! Channel! Flow are on show at the Royal Society of SculptorsDora House, 108 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3RA until April 20, 2023.