EK Interview: Ptolemy Elrington

Ptolemy Elrington makes animals from discarded hubcaps.  Animals of all kinds.  Super cool animals.  He makes them with all kinds of different tools.  His words: “I come across many things which have been abandoned and find something more in them than their intrinsic worthlessness.”  I couldn’t have said it better.  Read more of his words:

Who are you?

I’m Ptolemy Elrington, I’m 46 and I live and work in Brighton. U.K.

art blog - Ptolemy Elrington - Empty Kingdom

What were you like as a kid?

Quiet, introspective, I liked my own company and I read a lot. I drew and wrote a lot too.

art blog - Ptolemy Elrington - Empty Kingdom

What hardware do you use?

Simple hand tools: hacksaws, pliers, and a craft knife and wire snips. The only concession I make to technology is a battery-powered drill.

art blog - Ptolemy Elrington - Empty Kingdom

What does your workshop look like?  Can you stand it being cluttered?

It’s small and it is cluttered but in a relatively orderly way. As I work with found materials I’m naturally forever acquiring new things which may be useful one day, and there has to be somewhere for them where I can see them. I also work outside of my studio on large scrap metal projects, and the various places I use are quickly personalized.

art blog - Ptolemy Elrington - Empty Kingdom

How do you approach a piece?  Walk us through the shark, what your source material was, how you approached it.

I use a lot of found car hubcaps in my work. I’ve made a few different sharks over the years, and my usual procedure is to start with the shoulders, cutting and curving the hubcap to get the shape I want. This piece denotes the proportions of the shark, and my manipulation of it depends on whether I have a specific size in mind. I often prefer the shapes within the raw materials to ‘do their thing’, as this makes it more interesting for me. Sometimes a piece of hubcap fits in such a way that the shark becomes almost alive in my hands, climbing, twisting or just hanging motionless and predatory and this gives me a buzz. It makes me feel like a vehicle for the creation process rather than a controller, and not knowing the exact outcome is exciting. Saying that, I occasionally get very specific commissions which bring about an entirely different approach – struggling to manipulate materials in a way they don’t necessarily want to go is challenging, educational and ultimately expands my skills.

art blog - Ptolemy Elrington - Empty Kingdom

How do you choose an animal to make a piece out of?  What do you think about the animals you choose to make sculptures of says about you as a person?

I pick things almost at random, just on the premise that something attracts me to them. It isn’t all claws and teeth that interest me. The anthropomorphic machismo attributed to the shark is irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. I like its utilitarian qualities. I also like dopy looking fish – the muskellunge, the grouper or the john dory. Insects are attracting me more and more too. A flea through an electron microscope is utterly fascinating. And I like the shape of airplanes too.

art blog - Ptolemy Elrington - Empty Kingdom

How long have you been a sculptor?

Professionally for over ten years now, but previous to that I dabbled for ten years, mostly with found objects, but also with wire, wood, clay and metal.


What were your first pieces like?  How has your technique and approach changed since you first began?

I’ve got a lot less uptight over the years regarding the finish of a piece. I think accurate shape and character are far more important that a nice shiny coating. It’s taken me a long time to learn that there are no short cuts in what I do. However much I try to accommodate an early fault (or moment of laziness) it never works. If I decide a physical aspect of a piece in construction is inaccurate then I’ll carve into it, chop the whole thing in half if needs be, and build to my exact idea of what I want. This isn’t easy if you’re precious about a piece – you’ve spent a lot of time on it for instance, but if you don’t do it then you’ll know it’s never going to look right.

art blog - Ptolemy Elrington - Empty Kingdom

If you could spend two months with any artist, living or dead, whom would it be?

Difficult one that – There’s a few living ones I currently admire. Michael Ulman, Eduard Martinet, Mike Rivamonte, Harriet Mead and particularly James Corbett. Can I have a couple of months with each of them?


Do you ever wonder what skid marks on the road mean?  If there are tracks leading up to a tree was the car totaled?

Often on the motorway there’s a big chunk of metal barrier replaced at the end of the skid marks. I think if there was a monument erected at the side of the road every time there were a fatality people would maybe slow down a little. Mind you, there wouldn’t be much else at the side of the road after a while..

art blog - Ptolemy Elrington - Empty Kingdom

How did you decide upon hubcaps?  Do you use both plastic and metal hubcaps?  How do they differ?

I always use plastic ones. They’re much easier to work with, and quieter too. I know because I made a metal one once for Ken Marquis for his landfill art project in the States, and it was a pig to put together. Stainless steel is not only tough to drill and pop rivet, it’s also very sharp. I may incorporate the odd steel hubcap in the future, but it won’t be often.


How do you think we can address the issues of waste within our society?  What do you think are their major causes?

There’s always education of course. I do a certain amount of work in schools and it’s encouraging to see that most kids use the language of ecological responsibility in a natural way that would have been looked on as distinctly odd when I was their age. I like the idea of design for secondary use. It’s all well and good making something so that it can be melted down or disassembled and re-used, but what about something that comes to the end of it’s natural life and goes straight into another use?

art blog - Ptolemy Elrington - Empty Kingdom

Where in your personal development were you when you began thinking critically about the vices of our society, how did you decide that waste was the one that you wanted to address?  How have you developed since then?

I’ve always delighted in found objects and been dimly aware that the waste of a useful item is a bad thing, but it didn’t come to the forefront of my mind until a yearlong trip to India in the late eighties. I saw so many people scratching a living from next to nothing, and the ingenuity of their poverty driven invention to repair or re-use astounded me. I guess it fired me up to try and make a noise about it when I got back to the U.K.


Did you know animals are handed?  As in right and left handed.  What has been the most interesting idea that you’ve had recently?

No way! Really? Umm…I invented a special thingy for a BMX bicycle the other week but I haven’t got round to patenting it yet so I’m not going to tell you what it is.

art blog - Ptolemy Elrington - Empty Kingdom

Where do you think the balance lies between saving things with the goal of reuse and hoarding?

There’s a flexible answer to that depending on your attitude and the size of your storage space. I guess if you haven’t done anything with it in five years you should throw it away. But saying that, if I had a warehouse it would be as full as my studio in no time.


What are you working on now and what do you want to have planned for the coming year?

I’m currently struggling with an old Kawasaki z1000 that is the same age as my wife. I’m trying to get the thing going (the bike I mean).

Work-wise I’m making a cobra, also a piece involving eleven dragonflies and I’m in the process of negotiating several potential commissions. Unfortunately the commissions are all for private companies and as invariably they like me not to discuss until their finished sculpture is in the public domain I can’t say any more than that. I’ve got a couple of school workshops lined up with some more in the pipeline and later in the year I have a bunch of stuff I want to make but it depends on time. I quite fancy a full size human skeleton but I’m not sure what to do with the thing once I’ve finished it.