| For The Columbus Dispatch
Raised in a blue-collar, Catholic family, the identical twin African American brothers Kyle and Kelly Phelps incorporate their cultural and religious identities into sculptures they create together.
The newest exhibit of works by the 47-year-old Ohio artists addresses what they believe are voiceless Americans — blue-collar workers of all races and urban Blacks. “On(c)es Forgotten,” at Otterbein University’s Frank Art Museum, includes 21 ceramic and mixed-media sculptures that celebrate and sympathize with people who are ignored, left behind or oppressed.
The expressive, realistic sculptures, presented in shadow boxes on the walls, are of white coal miners and welders, Latino factory workers, African American youths and protestors as well as the homeless.
“Miner’s Shrine” (2020) presents a worker in a yellow hard hat riding in a mine shaft elevator, lighting a cigarette and surrounded by real lumps of Kentucky coal.
“Randy” (2020) is a hunched-over welder, a pair of gloves draped over the box that frames him. Hanging at the side of the box is a real welder’s mask decorated with the image of a pin-up girl.
“The Patriot” (2019) is a homeless man pushing a cart loaded with his possessions and wearing a tattered Army jacket. He carries a small American flag, and he and his cart are positioned in front of a large flag.
The flag also figures prominently in African American-themed works. “Injustice or Just Us” (2018) is a heartbreaking scene with a pieta composition: On a streetscape and before a huge flag, a mother and father cradle their shot and dying teenager, blood visible on his basketball jersey.
In almost every piece are prominent or subtle religious references. The triptych “Worker’s Altar” (2015) presents factory workers on each side panel surrounding the image in the central panel: a pair of hands holding a machine gear like a communion wafer. Other sculptures of various workers have titles including “St. Martin,” “Communion” and “Jesus.”
Janice Glowski, director of museums and galleries at Otterbein and curator of the exhibit, calls all of the works “little altars or shrines.”
The Phelps brothers grew up in New Castle, Indiana, where both their parents worked in factories.
“Our town was like living in a miner’s camp,” Kelly Phelps said. “All these people — whether Black or white — were middle- or lower-class or just plain poor. The imagery in our town was shift changes, a water tower, factory bells and railroad tracks that were directly behind our house.”
Although gifted in art, the only art they could see in their town, the brothers said, were WPA murals at the post office or sacred images at church.
After graduating with art degrees from Ball State University in Indiana, the brothers returned home and worked in a factory, then attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky. Today, Kyle Phelps heads the ceramic and sculpture department at the University of Dayton, and Kelly Phelps oversees the sculpture department at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
They create together in their studio in Centerville, Ohio. Their pieces are fired ceramics augmented with materials they’ve found in abandoned factories, mills or coal mines — all to capture and document the lives of their subjects.
“Kyle and I feel that, in a way, we’re not only artists but journalists,” Kelly Phelps said.
The brothers’ sculptures are included in public and private collections, including those of film director Michael Moore and actor Morgan Freeman. They have had recent exhibits in Houston and Detroit and will have a March exhibit at Xavier University.
They plan to continue producing sculptures in the same vein.
“I think we’ll always be blue-collar at heart,” Kyle Phelps said. “We’d like to do more agricultural workers, women workers, LGBT workers, anyone we deem the invisible people.
“In our country today, we really only see the end products of factories, not the impact on the lives of the people who work there.”
At a glance
“On(c)es Forgotten,” sculptures by Kyle and Kelly Phelps, continues through Dec. 4 in Otterbein University’s Frank Museum of Art, 39 S. Vine St., Westerville. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Call 614-823-1792 or visit www.otterbein.edu/art-exhibit-schedule.
Credit: Source link