For the last few years our amazing reprographics and photography  maestro Claire Hoskins has been working as the Pitt Rivers Museum’s unofficial artist not in residence, here she talks about how the collection has inspired her work.

I studied 3D design at university and first discovered the museum during a drawing week, the art school equivalent of a reading week. A few years ago I decided to carry on the drawing week tradition and spend a few days in the Pitt Rivers Museum improving my drawing skills. The museum is an amazing resource for artists and designers and when I visit I am rarely the only person scribbling in sketchbooks in dark corners. Pitt Rivers himself was an enthusiastic advocate of drawing and its part in what he called “eye training”. Not only was he quite demanding of the skills of the “draughtsmen” illustrating his collection’s catalogue he believed that drawing played a crucial part of understanding the world. He wrote that “no one can take in an accurate impression of the things he sees in the world until he has acquired the power of drawing them correctly.” His interest in the “evolution of design”, a central theme in his vision for the Pitt Rivers Museum, is best illustrated by his “Drawing Game”. This was a graphic version of the parlour game Chinese Whispers intended to mimic, in a short period of time, the way design “evolves” through copying and reinterpretation by successive generations of makers.

Inspired by Pitt Rivers’ theories I start my work by making detailed observational drawings which record the objects’ forms and manner of construction. From these drawings and photographs I make line drawings of individual artefacts or whole group displays. Equal importance is given to the objects, interstitial spaces, shadows, reflections, labeling and display paraphernalia. The resulting interlocking and overlapping forms generate new forms which become the basis for “constructed” drawings using collage. These drawing exercises are a process of abstracting or “evolving” the forms of the original objects into small-scale sculptures.

I use a variety of materials including steel wire, fabric, acrylic, ivory, antler and horn with the main body of each piece being carved from wood. I work mostly with hand tools and the objects are precisely constructed and highly finished, right down to the acrylic inlays. One of the things that fascinates me about the PRM collection is the resourcefulness in the use and reuse of materials. I try to continue that resourcefulness and the great majority of materials I use are off-cuts or reclaimed/reused, taking great care that the resulting sculptures are not crude or “rustic”. I am always on the look out in junk shops for broken or unwanted items made of horn, bone or ivory and have a bizarre collection of walking stick handles, drinking horns and bone knitting needles ready for use.

Colour is never applied to a surface but exists as part of the solid material. This includes the wire elements of the sculptures that are bound in red, black or cream upholstery thread. I avoid using “artificial” colours like blue and try to use natural materials and colours that reflect my favourite objects in the PRM. The pieces are of a “hand held” scale and although they are no longer concerned with the original objects’ function or cultural significance they have a certain quality that suggests a function or meaning.

When you love the collection and individual objects you are working from it is easy to merely create or copy artefacts. I try to “evolve” my objects though my own cultural response and “eye training” within the museum’s collection. However, to ground the sculptures in the context of the museum they are titled with the accession number of the artefact from the collection that most inspired them. I hope this also serves to pay thanks to the museum and and all its contributing makers.

This article first featured in the winter edition of The Friends of Pitts Rivers Museum Oxford Magazine.



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