Illustrating Lost Languages


Sometimes words are worth a hundred illustrations.

Currently on display at Hudson Coffee Traders in New Paltz, Polly M. Law’s bricolage artwork resurrects words that have fallen out of popular, modern usage.

The 20 illustrations are selections from Law’s ongoing series, “The Word Project,” which began in 2011. Law said inspiration for the project came after a friend signed her up for Anu Garg’s “A Word A Day,” which sends a daily
vocabulary word — usually skewing toward out-of-the-ordinary words — to your

“I saved the ones that were new and interesting to me, and saved them on a file in my email, and it kept getting bigger and bigger,” she said. “One day, out of the blue — I don’t know why — I got the idea to illustrate the words with my paper dolls. That was the birth of the ‘Word Project.’”

To make her paper dolls, Law uses illustration board for the figures, as well as buttons, wire, bits of feather and other found objects. She said she uses inexpensive, acrylic paints — because “they’re cheap and cheerful and easy to use” — cut stencils for patterns and cut-up sponges for repeating patterns.

“Probably the most exotic material I use is the thread I use to sew the buttons on — it’s a wax-linen thread I get from a book bindery,” Law said. “Everything else is common, ordinary stuff. I try to elevate it by how I use it.”

Taking what she calls the “circuitous” route to her current artistic niche, Law’s background and inspiration as an artist could be described as a bricolage itself. She said she started glassblowing before moving onto weaving, sketching and storyboard designing for advertising.

“I was able to take the knowledge of color from my weaving studies, the drawing ability from Barbara Carr and Neal Adams, [and] some technical stuff from Leo and Diane Dillon,” she said. “I threw in some pattern work from an artist named Eyvind Earle — who did the backgrounds for Walt Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ — whose work I just adore. Just a mish-mash of some other things, and I came up with my own style.”

Law said when she started showing people the paper dolls, they would tell her that they should be a book — and she agreed. She said she spent the next 10 years sending the book to publishers who “loved…the art [and] concept,” but couldn’t find a place for it on the shelves.

“Is it an art book? A language book? A dictionary? Is it a humor book?,” she said. “And the answer to all those is yes, but they [the publishers] only wanted it to be one of those things.”

However, one morning she said she was reading the Business section of The New York Times — which she didn’t normally do — when she saw a small article about Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform for creative projects.

Her first project failed, but after carefully tightening the focus of her project to getting the book published, she reached 150 percent of her goal. In December 2010, “The Word Project: Odd & Obscure Words — Illustrated,” which features more than 100 of her word-illustrations, was published.

Hudson Coffee Traders Owner Donna Brooks said her relationship with Law started when the artist did a signing for her book in Kingston.

“At the same time, she was our artist in the round room — we have an amazing round room in our Kingston location, which is the home of our rotating artists’ exhibitions,” she said. “Our relationship has grown as [she] is also responsible for [the] menu boards in both locations and the window display in Kingston.”

Brooks said they don’t have plans to take down Law’s artwork in their New Paltz location, and that the response to the work is always the same — one of “amazement” and the desire to own a piece.

“We have no plans of replacing Polly’s word in New Paltz, [but] we might change out her work…to one of her other themes art works,” she said.

Law said “The Word Project” is only being displayed in Hudson Coffee Traders, and the rest of the unsold illustrations are tucked inside her cupboard. She’s not currently working on a specific word, but she is pursuing a larger project — volume two of “The Word Project: Odd & Obscure Words — Illustrated.”

Law said she keeps long lists of words that she continually reads and rereads until something “sparks.” With more than 125 illustrations made and some already sold to eager buyers, there are still words stuck on Law’s illustrative tongue, like yclept, an Old English word meaning “by name of.”

“It doesn’t have anything I can put a hook on — as far as a figure,” she said. “Maybe in the future it will happen.”