Ptolemy Elrington was born in 1965. Since studying art he’s been working as a self-employed professional sculptor since 2002. He works with recycled materials incorporating a regenerative eco aware theme in his work. Clients include R.S.P.B., The Environment Agency, Thames Barrier, Ronseal, Kenwood, Ecover, East Coast Trains and both Essex and Brighton County Councils. His work has been to numerous venues in London and the south-east and has travelled to exhibitions in Ireland, Greece, Spain and Russia. He’s currently working on several private commissions and a continuation of his own work. At the moment he lives in Brighton.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
I have to confess that I’m a reckless fool on a motorcycle. I love bikes and I’ve had one or more than one since I was fourteen. Of course I’ve had knocks and spills over the years, I’ve lost a few friends along the way and consequently I’m well aware of how I should behave but unfortunately I remain perpetually immature and just can’t control my impatience in traffic; this leads me into some precarious scenarios. Zigzagging in and out of the bus lane the other day I squeezed through a rapidly closing gap I had no right to be in (memories of a Citroen commercial in the eighties came to mind) and instead of the inevitable bone crushing mangle I was expecting I came out unexpectedly in the clear with a strong sense of astonished wonderment. This led me to think of frequent previous near misses, far too many speeding tickets and the whole tedious nature of the legal procedure and therefore I subsequently renewed my resolve to develop my considerate, careful and intelligent driver skills. I’m still trying…
What have been the key moments that have led you to producing sculptures from found objects?
Two key moments – I remember in the distant past taking part in a college project that involved creating sculpture from found objects. I made a peculiar ringmaster figure with a cloak represented by a smashed car windscreen. It loomed oppressively over a cluster of small plastic wild animals glued to a slowly revolving tiny electric motor. I distinctly remember the pleasure I felt in identifying the different identities prevalent in the pieces I collected. It started a germ of thought that explored the possibilities of design in terms of a longer purpose. Could something be created with the possibility of having more than one life? The second key moment was in India. I saw people scrambling over a huge pile of barely identifiable junk in order to reclaim tiny bits of copper wire sheathed in plastic. They burnt or stripped the plastic off in order to weigh the metal in. This was one of many instances when I witnessed a reuse and repair mentality that’s almost disappeared in western culture. Obviously these specific procedures in India were driven by poverty but it got me to thinking about how wasteful a species we can be and how much untapped value there is in all that effluent that surrounds us. I like to think that in some small way my work encourages people to think a little about the nature of value and hopefully shines a light on the preposterous notion that the ‘retail therapy’ stuff we buy will make us happy.
When you work do you see the sculpture in the discarded object or find the object to fit the sculpture? Or is it more of a dialogue?
All three at different points depending on how I feel, what’s being made and how the processes are going. Sometimes a piece of junk looks like an octopus abdomen and that sparks me up. Other times I want to make something such as a Barreleye Fish because it just looks so cool, and other times I’m in the middle of a piece and I want something specific because I know aesthetically speaking it will fit perfectly. Then there are the times that I just want/need to make something. Anything. I think identifying the shape of something within something else as merely an extension of cloud gazing. We could all do with a bit more cloud gazing in our lives.
Is it important to you that the “past life” of the component parts are recognisable?
Very much so – if you can’t work out what the constituent parts are then you don’t enter into the thinking processes of what where how and why. These are important to me and are integral to my idea of how I think my work should be viewed in the public realm. Of course once my work is out there amongst the public it more or less out of my sphere of influence and unless I get stupidly didactic about it (writing complex manifestos and nailing it to the work etc) then all I can do is hope it spreads a positive influence and isn’t just a nice shiny thing on a wall. To be honest though, once it’s left me I usually forget all about it as I have other things to think of – the next piece of work or my day to day duties. The fish can look after themselves.
Do you feel you’ve acquired an enhanced skill in ‘noticing’, both from your art college training and in searching for the next object to upcycle?
Absolutely! I can spot a hubcap at the side of the road from miles away. There have been times I’ve been sat on a coach and seriously considered disembarking at the next opportunity solely for the purpose of returning along the route taken in order to pick up a particularly choice hubcap I noticed. I’ve learnt to ‘just let it go’ now. I terms of my work I’m now pretty familiar with the processes of creating the peculiar 3D jigsaws I make so it’s fairly easy for me to identify sections of objects or physical qualities within objects that can be transmogrified into something quite different. It’s not only rewarding and exciting, it also feels like breathing – you take it for granted but when you think about it you know you can’t do without it. I remember from way back in my early college days I spent a lot of time life drawing. I don’t know if art colleges still attach as much importance to the process as they did then but I’m still a committed believer. Looking back at the drawings I did then the progression in skill over a relatively short time is quite distinct – with a good teacher you learn to look in a way that travels into your hands when you create. When I work in schools I always tell the kids that good artwork is all about looking.
Is there a road that has become a regular and fruitful source of car parts?
Not now but in the early days I knew all the spots around Brighton that yielded a good return. I’d go out on my pushbike with a back rack and a couple of bungees and always come back with a few hubcaps. One time I went to a rave in a field outside town and discovered a huge pile of abandoned hubcaps near the site. It took four trips on the bicycle to collect them all. I lived in Ireland for a few months and there were rarely any road finds there because people were more frugal and less fussy about their wheels. I often saw cars with four mismatching wheel trims, something you rarely get in the UK – which is pretty peculiar if you take the time to think about it. We are weird about our cars here. I once put a two-inch scratch on the quarter bumper of a guy’s car and he was apoplectic, almost in tears. Weird.
Is there a piece of work that you’re particularly fond of? Maybe because of the recipient’s reaction, the doors it unlocked for you or that exemplifies your work.
Mostly I don’t like selling my work but I have to in order to pay the rent. There have been plenty of commissions I’ve made that I’ve really wanted to keep. One time I made a chinchilla for a woman whose pet had died. I put it in an open topped cardboard box full of straw and it looked soooo cute. At the big reveal she burst into tears when she saw it and I wasn’t quite sure at first but as she told me it was such an accurate piece then that made it OK for me I guess. I do like to think that it was cherished. I’ve had a few people who have amassed quite a few pieces of work and one guy in particular would come and windowshop at my studio before buying. After a while I realised he was picking my brains about the work, discerning what I valued in the pieces on display and choosing accordingly. He spent an age deciding between two of my then favourite pieces and eventually, after he’d selected, I felt such a huge relief he hadn’t chosen the other one I removed it from ‘the shelf’ and it is now in my private collection. (Of one)
What have been your most cherished reactions/responses to your work?
Like anyone I have an ego and it’s nice to get positive reactions to my work but to be honest, I don’t feel all that much when people are positive which they mostly are. Every now and then I get disinterest and very occasionally downright hostility which I ALWAYS remember – every time. I’m most excited when I get constructive criticism though. One time I was exhibiting at an event when I bumped into Harriet Meade, whose work I greatly admire. Once she knew who I was she began an uninvited and detailed critique of the work I had on display and she was bang on the money. I was hoping I’d get to return the favour but she wasn’t interested. Nevertheless it was a valuable experience. I learnt that you seriously don’t cut any corners when it comes to making art. If you do, once the piece is claimed as finished, the slapdash element is, as the creator, all you’ll see. Chop into it and make it right, however much wok it is, you’ll only regret it otherwise, and ‘out of sight out of mind’ doesn’t work either. And from a purely mercenary capacity, your work is an advertisement for you when it’s out in the world and it needs to be right or it won’t get you any more work. Curiously, I did have a fish stolen once and that was a compliment, especially because of the circumstances. I’d hung it, amongst a selection of other works, in the grounds of St James Palace on The Mall as part of an eco show there and someone took it from under the nose of an armed guard so I guess they must have been quite keen on it.
What’s your memories of Art and Design at school? How do you think we should teach those subjects?
I have good and bad memories from my time at college. I went as a mature student (as mature as a twenty one year old can be) and as I knew I wanted to explore every possibility the college offered and didn’t come straight from the educational treadmill then the facilities were a godsend. I had three years to indulge my artistic whimsy (within the framework of the curriculum of course) and so I laboured through the academic requirements: went in early, worked late, and really enjoyed myself as well. Don’t get me wrong though, I wasn’t always working – the social life with it’s myriad of different learning opportunities was a big draw as well. This was in the last years of full student grants so I was one of the lucky ones to finish college without the awful bonded labour albatross of debt to work off. After my time there, and on reflection, I thought that college was too wrapped up in being college if that makes any sense. As a student you were rewarded for being onside with the tutors (sleeping with them too occasionally) and producing work that was well presented, sellable, conformed to the tutors input and wasn’t too challenging. Laziness was rightfully marked down but individuality was not always rewarded. I always thought that ART was the main thing, if not the everything and all else was secondary. I may sound bitter but I’m not (and I’ve grown to realise that this was an uninformed opinion) – I was smart enough, or lucky enough, to be able to do the minimum required to get me through the course and to secure my qualification but a few students, in my opinion more talented than I, did not get judged fairly.
Having recently finished reading Adam Savage’s book “Every tool’s a hammer”, it’s got me thinking about the philosophy and practicalities of workshops. What’s your working space like and how does it work for you?
My working space is a nest and a haven of junk for me. I like a busy space all cluttered up with a variety of lighting sources, frenetic in texture and with a few clear spaces juxtaposed to give a little peace to the eye. I like to know roughly where everything is, countless shelves and hanging hooks to cluster, delicatessen style, all the little bits and pieces that I may or may not use or that I just like hanging around. Play is important in my work and I need to feel safe and inspired in my space. As I am a father and consequently have time-of-day related responsibilities I can no longer indulge the ‘work when the muse takes me’ ethos of sculpture making. Now I have to fit my creative mojo into a timetable and therefore my comfortable art space has to surround and guide me into the right frame of mind to be able to work. Sometimes I set myself a series of simple related tasks to begin my day at work in order to fire up the engine to ride the wave.
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