Mirror Image part 3
A people left behind
Three framed statues are lined up side by side on a workbench in a small studio in the lower level of Kyle Phelps’ suburban house in Centerville, Ohio. They are, for the most part, complete, but they need some finishing touches. The two men move around the enclosed space with ease, taking turns dabbing paint onto the sculptured figure placed squarely in the center of each piece against a backdrop of riveted metal. One dabs here, the other dabs there, moving in unison, piece by piece. Each movement complements the other in a kind of rhythm that can only occur among people who have known each other for a very long time.
Sixteen years after their year at BorgWarner, having earned Master of Fine Arts degrees together at the University of Kentucky, Kelly and Kyle Phelps are now professors in ceramics and sculpture—Kelly at Xavier, Kyle at the University of Dayton. They are also accomplished artists who have completed more than 100 pieces, some of which have been purchased by museums, corporations and universities, including Chrysler Corp. and Purdue University, and private individuals, including movie producer Michael Moore, actor Morgan Freeman and musician Bootsy Collins.
They recently completed a commissioned statue of jazz musician Eric Dolphy for Le Moyne College. Their work has been featured in Sculpture Magazine, and they are increasingly getting more showings, such as last summer when they were the invited artists at the 19th annual San Angelo National Ceramic Competition. They submitted several of their most recent works, whose titles reflect the Phelps’ renewed focus on working-class themes. Among them: “News of the Layoff,” “Steel Worker” and “Miss America.”
Scroggins is proud of his former students. “The people I know that have seen their work and their energy and what they have to offer are very, very accepting of what they try to do and who they are,” he says. “They’re involved in a social commentary that a lot of people in our country have ignored. They’re reminding us of the people who got left behind.”
The Phelps brothers’ art tells the story of what happened to their city and the working-class people who lived there—starting with
the layoffs and eventual selling off of the New Castle Chrysler plant to DaimlerChrysler in 2002. What once employed nearly 7,000 people in the 1930s had only 200 workers remaining. The factory is now completely silent, as is BorgWarner.
“When the factories disappeared, the poverty set in,” Kelly says.
[View a slideshow of the Phelps brothers' art]
The titles of the three pieces on the workbench reflect as much: “The Break” features a factory worker lighting a cigarette. He wears a jump suit and has a lunch pail at his side. “Miss America” features a woman in similar work clothes, a lunch pail in one hand and work gloves in the other, looking down and dejected. The third piece, “John Henry,” is shown holding a sledgehammer.
What’s most noticeable about the people in the pieces is that they are idle. “They’re not working. They’re disheartened. They’ve been let go,” Kelly says. “The point of the piece is they’re no longer viable to anyone’s service. They’re cast off, discarded.”
The “Miss America” piece reflects their recognition that women are part of the working-class workforce, too, and ought to be treated as equals to men. One of their favorite sculptures is “Carlita,” featuring a hotel maid in a headscarf pushing a cart filled with cleaning supplies. The backdrop, as in most of their pieces, is an American flag.
“She’s the hotel worker who cleans the room and then disappears,” he says. “There’s something really dirty about how we treat these people.”
The Phelps brothers start a sculpture by first getting into their car and driving to old factory sites in Indiana and Ohio. The abandoned behemoths are now rusting hulks, partly torn down, partly collapsed. They take pictures and then discreetly collect scrap metal and machine parts. They haul it back to the storage room in Centerville and piece by piece, find ways to incorporate the rusting iron and steel into their art, redefining the original intention of each item.
They clean and heat-treat sections of old corrugated steel and wrap it around wooden frames to create a rugged backdrop for the sculpture that nestles in the center. In some pieces, the steel is shaped to resemble smoke stacks and water towers, and always an American flag. A rusted railroad spike they found onsite is attached to the “John Henry” piece. A pair of real, worn work boots dangles from another.
“Our art now is reflective of our experience in that factory town,” Kelly says. “These factories are just shells of what they used to be. They were these mega-structures, and when you see the space where it doesn’t exist anymore, it’s like a scab or wound or a memory of what once was there. They’re being scraped away as if it never was there.”
Except that their art is archiving that history and, as Kelly says, “capturing the moment before it disappears.”