Altars of the Unnoticed

The art and practice of the Phelps brothers

By Ashley Jonas

Artists Kyle and Kelly Phelps are identical twins. Growing up, their mother dressed them alike everyday with hopes of instilling closeness between the two. She was successful in her endeavor. Now in their forties, the two dress alike, speak alike, live in the same neighborhood and drive the same car. But this sameness, oneness, “twin-ness” transcends their outward appearance and is most powerful in the studio, where they make art together. Their strong sense of craftsmanship and creativity produce subtly powerful sculptures that depict the far too often unnoticed blue-collar workers of our nation.

The two artists are from New Castle, Indiana, where the majority of the town, including the twins’ father, worked in an auto-assembly factory for Chrysler before the plant closed in 2009. The factory was a temple of sorts for New Castle. Everyone was connected to the factory and its workers in some way. The factory was what the community believed in, invested in, found strength and support in. It was also the thing that paid their bills and took care of their families. The factory workers built auto parts, while the factory built the town’s identity. The community of New Castle was immersed in manufacturing and so it is no wonder that Kyle and Kelly would be makers themselves.

The twins remember their father’s at-home workspace being filled with scraps of building materials: wood pieces, twine, paint and other detritus. They used these materials to make their own toys. I imagine their father watching the two invent and assemble, curious of where the boys would take their fascination with creation.

Perhaps surprisingly, they took it to art school. Kyle and Kelly enrolled in Ball State University, where they received their Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in 1996. After graduating, they moved back to New Castle and got temporary jobs at the Chrysler factory in order to earn some money over the summer. On the production line, Kyle and Kelly would begin to deeply understand what life was like for the factory workers that made up their hometown. This experience would prove to be invaluable as they went on the search to find their artistic voices in the MFA program at The University of Kentucky.

Before discovering that voice, the twins were making what they describe as “Angry Black Man art”—work that used afro-centric imagery to speak about racism and slavery. While that subject matter and message is important and powerful, it did not speak to the twins’ personal life experiences and, therefore, lacked a sense of sincerity. Their audience felt this lack of sincerity and their professor criticized them for it.

“We had to step back and think,” they say. “We live in the Midwest, what do we really know about Africa and that experience? The city that we came from was a 99 percent white community so what really were we talking about?”

Kyle and Kelly began to realize they had been introduced to their rich subject matter a long time ago. “We had to start thinking about our folks coming to the factory, serving and working,” the twins say.

Through this thinking, they started to create sculptures whose subject matter was more inclusive, extending outside of issues of race and engaging with issues that were real to them. In looking to their background and upbringing, the twins found truth and authenticity. They decided they wanted their artwork to illuminate the blue-collar worker. “Sometimes the subject is right in front of you, it’s a person pumping gas at Speedway, it’s the guy that works at Firestone, it’s the person that changes the sheets on your bed or the house keeper that cleans up after you.”

It seems as though the twins had come full circle, only with a truer and greater understanding of who they are in terms of their history as individuals and their presence as artists.

With that understanding, as well as Masters of Fine Arts degrees, Kyle and Kelly set into a prolific and rhythmic studio practice. The two work collaboratively on every aspect of the production.

“We work on three or four pieces at one time,” Kelly says. “Neither one of us has complete authorship over one piece, meaning Kyle’s not working on one piece until completion. It’s very much like an assembly line; it’s a team effort. So we rotate in and out, work back-to-back or side-to-side.”

“Working this close together you can hear the other person breathing, you can smell the other person,” Kyle adds. “We work so tight and so close together, much like on the line. The same as in the factory situation, we’re working towards a common goal. It is like we are one person at times.”

In their very small, but efficient, at-home studio, the brothers produce their sculptures through a number of steps and processes. They first sculpt the figures in clay, then fire and paint them. The twins then create a context, or setting, for those figures to exist in. To create those settings, the twins repurpose materials they have found. The inclusion of these found objects is important to the authenticity of the sculptures.

“We reclaim materials from factory sites,” they say. “We are archiving history through the materials we use.”

Collecting is an integral part of the twins’ practice. They collect gears, scrap metal, steel and other pieces that come directly from their source material to incorporate into their sculptures. They also collect stories that serve as the impetus in creating their pieces. Kyle and Kelly are consistently visiting union halls, factories, blue-collar communities and having conversations with folks. Talking about this and that, the mundane and the thrilling, sharing and connecting. There is a strong sense of respect and comfortability between the twins and the people they make their work about.

While talking to workers, Kyle and Kelly found that only about 10 percent of them have ever been to a gallery to look at artwork. So, the twins began to bring their work into union halls, government buildings, places the workers were comfortable and familiar with. In such places, the workers are able to view the sculptures that commemorate their lives and experiences.

“They were really proud to see imagery of themselves, imagery that represents them,” the twins beam. “As consumers in our society we’re so used to seeing the end product, the new car rolling off the assembly line or the new washing machine on TV. We’re so consumer driven that we don’t really see the maker, we just see the product. So when the workers see our sculptures they say, ‘Hey! That’s how I sit on a crane when I run my machine,’ or ‘That’s what it’s like when I take my smoke break.’”

Kyle and Kelly are able to perfectly and accurately depict what life looks like. The sculptures read as pages in a book or stages of a play, but the moments depicted are not concerned with climax or resolution. The wall-mounted sculptures show working class men and women in moments of rest, waiting or contemplation. People engaging in a private minute before their work continues, what ever work that might be.

“We’re not trying to portray our folks as John Wayne characters. We never put anybody on a pedestal. Our father never put himself on one. He just did what he had to do to support the family.”

Kyle and Kelly Phelps have been successfully working studio artists for over a decade. Their work has been exhibited in over 110 juried, solo, invitational, regional, national and international exhibitions. The brothers have completed over 75 commissions that include many permanent, private, public and corporate collections. In addition to their prolific career as studio artists, they are both educators in academia. Kelly is associate professor and acting chair at Xavier University in Cincinnati, while Kyle is associate professor at The University of Dayton.

“We always had a plan of being together. I took my brother to my first job interview,” recalls Kelly, who went along with Kyle to an interview for an adjunct position at the University of Dayton. As Kyle was being asked questions, Kelly would elaborate on the answers, making sure all their skills and knowledge were known. They were both hired.

The Phelps brothers know who they are, where they came from, what is important to them. That knowledge, that sense of pride and self is what allows them to continue to work in a way that is, after many years, still fresh and full of discovery. They are honest and forthright. Kyle and Kelly are also…Really. Really. Hard. Workers.

I am always dumbfounded when I stop to think about how many different occupations it takes to keep our society going. We need teachers, bankers, grocery store clerks, inventors and mechanics. It is important to put this into perspective and to acknowledge the responsibility every one of us has to ourselves, our families and the world we live in. The work of Kyle and Kelly Phelps is an honest and genuine representation of those responsibilities. We need the folks that the twins make their work about. We need the twins to make their work. Because that work reminds us all to stay humble, appreciate one another and embrace all parts of the human experience.

Ashley Jonas is an artist, curator and writer. After completing her Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Florida, she went on to receive a Master of Fine Art from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Ashley currently lives and works in Dayton. Her artistic and curatorial practices are rooted in an everlasting search for moments of wonder. Reach Ashley at AshleyJonas@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Ashley Jonas is an artist, curator and writer. After completing her Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Florida, she went on to receive a Master of Fine Art from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Ashley currently lives and works in Dayton. Her artistic and curatorial practices are rooted in an everlasting search for moments of wonder. Reach Ashley at AshleyJonas@DaytonCityPaper.com

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