It was at the age of ten that Polly Macpherson first remembers demonstrating the art and act of ‘making’. A piece of clay – a material defined by its mess and malleability – transformed by her hands into a ‘thrown pot’.
Polly, Associate Head of Enterprise in the School of Art, Design and Architecture, has made countless works since, and seen them exhibited and bought around the world. But the significance of that first item cannot be oversold in terms of her approach to life.
“There is an importance in being able to make something, to touch something and say ‘I did that’, whatever it may be,” she says. “There is a really strong element of satisfaction and achievement. I still have that pot to this day.”
That joy, and sense of purpose that Polly understood from her formative school days – “I was very fortunate to be in a school that had a ceramics tutor” – has been at the heart of her 30-year-career as an artist, maker and academic. It’s one she has passed on to scores of graduates, including renowned artist Barnaby Barford and sustainable surfboard entrepreneur James Otter. And, via the medium of television, it has now been shared with millions of viewers in their own homes.
Aired in July 2019, Channel 4’s Kirstie’s Celebrity Craft Masters brought Polly to the small screen as an expert judge alongside print designer Piyush Suri. Over 15 episodes, a variety of celebrities including Natasha Kaplinsky and Tanni Grey-Thompson were pitched against one another – and their own comfort zones. This made for an interesting dynamic for Polly, whose role was to deliver constructive feedback whether they wanted to hear it or not.
Polly said: “It was challenging because we had these very long days, sometimes filming up to three episodes, and we were dealing with people who we didn’t know – and whose knowledge of art, creating and designing we didn’t know either. Mix in their need to ‘present’ themselves in a certain way, and their readiness to receive constructive criticism, and it was a very different experience to anything I had done before.”
Polly was approached by the producers at the start of 2019 off the back of a number of recent public profile raising engagements, including delivering the keynote at the first Craft Week in Hangzhou, China, and being a judge on the Woman’s Hour Craft Prize. The experience of filming a programme provided her with the opportunity to observe not only a new form of ‘making’, but also reflect upon the importance of creativity, especially at a time when technology has become so omnipresent.
“I think programmes like these can be hugely important,” she said. “Of course, there are different schools of thought here, whether you’re a high-end maker or a sitting-room craftsman. My attitude is that you have to start somewhere. Often people don’t have the opportunity to make things in schools – it’s deemed too dangerous or they don’t have kilns, for example. But if they can see their favourite celebrities having a go at crafts that they themselves can do in their home, then that can only be a good thing. And if you find that spark and that passion, it is so celebratory and exciting.
“And I do think that what we’re seeing is that people want to make things or be physically doing things, whether potting a plant, mowing the lawn or making a physical object,” Polly continues. “We are so involved with technology – which is a good thing, as there is lots of learning there – but we are physical beings, we want to be engaged with things.”
Born in England, but raised in Scotland, Polly attended school in Edinburgh, and by her own admission ‘just didn’t fit in’ with the demanding academic model and expectations placed upon the pupils. Art proved to be her outlet, but even so, the experience initially steered her away from university. While many of her classmates headed off to Oxbridge, Polly worked for two years in Hertfordshire and only then felt ready to resume her studies. She enrolled on a traditional Art & Design foundation course for one year, and then a Bachelor of Arts degree that was delivered by both the University of Wolverhampton and California State University. Polly then moved on to a masters degree at the University of Wales.
“What this experience taught me was that once I really get my teeth into a project or idea, I thrive,” she says. “However, it sometimes takes me a while to do this.”
Polly trained in ceramics and confesses to having a “love/hate relationship with clay” owing to its physical and temperamental properties. And for 17 years she was based at a studio in Exeter, where she undertook commissioned work for galleries and private buyers, as well as collaborative projects funded by Arts Council England.
“I used to struggle with having a gallerist come into the studio and suggesting how I could do things,” she says. “It felt like being a lab rat."
Polly joined the University when the faculty was based in Exeter, and she has embraced both the opportunities within the institution and in the community. She’s Associate Head of School for Enterprise and sits on a number of faculty and institution-level groups.
She’s held roles on regional and national bodies, including as a trustee of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen and acting as South West Coordinator for the Crafts Council’s national Hothouse 3 initiative. And she has also worked to develop a number of student and research initiatives, facilitating opportunities within the creative industries and working with organisations including Hole & Corner, London Craft Week and the Port Eliot Festival.
One of Polly’s latest projects casts her gaze even further into the region, as an Automation Fellow, part of the South West Creative Technology Network run in conjunction with Falmouth, UWE and Bath universities. She will be researching how the region is incorporating automation into its making processes – and what the impact of that might be.
“The South West has always been known for wellbeing – people would come to take the waters or clear their heads, while others would set up making workshops,” she says. “There is less of this happening now, and so my research project is about exploring how automation developments are affecting the skills, creative ideas and processes of designer maker/craft practitioners in the South West. I want to explore how automation tools can be used to develop new sense and sense-making creative objects and artefacts, and then find ways of sharing the new knowledge both in an educational setting and beyond.”
Creation. Collaboration. Education.
Key themes that distinguish Polly’s work like grain through wood. With students, graduates, stakeholders, colleagues and celebrities, she is inspiring and empowering them to experiment, take chances, and find the joy of making things.
“I tell everyone: ‘Find your passion, and if you don’t know, have a go!’” she says finally. “It may be you have an idea, but you have to change materials, and that’s fine. You don’t have to be specialists in every single material. It is my heartfelt desire to be able to show people how to do things well and even better. So many people are in jobs and working on things they are not passionate about and they’re not living their best lives.”