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Growing up in New Castle, Indiana, identical twins Kelly and Kyle Phelps shared everything – a bed, hand-me-downs from their six older siblings, their school classrooms, and all the rhythms and routines of life in a Rust Belt manufacturing town during the 1970s and ’80s, the waning heyday of the American auto industry.
“Remember the sitcom Roseanne? That was pretty much our upbringing,” Kyle says of their blue-collar household. Both brothers carry a vivid memory of how, every morning like clockwork, their father would put on his work boots, take his beat-up lunch pail, and head off to his job at the auto assembly plant. What he did there was something of a mystery to them. Eight or more hours later he’d return, always sitting down on the front steps to untie and remove the oily boots.
“Kyle and I would go and pick the metal shavings out of the bottoms of his soles. It was big fun to do that,” Kelly recalls. Their dad’s clothes would smell of machine oil, a powerful sense memory for the twins to this day. The next morning, without fail and without complaint, he’d get up and do it all over again.
Other Phelps family members performed versions of the same ritual, as did many of their friends and neighbors. For decades, these were the good-paying, secure jobs. The factory was the lifeblood of a town like New Castle, and just about everyone was connected to it in some way. Then the auto industry began its decline, bringing layoffs and plant closures; it was pain that Kelly and Kyle saw up close in their community. By then, they had already chosen a different path for themselves – to become artists. Where it led them was close to home.
Now 40, the Phelps twins share a very personal artistic vision. Together they make art that puts a human face on a growing statistic – workers displaced by downsizing, outsourcing, automation, and hard times.
Reminiscent of the WPA art of the 1930s, their wall-mounted, relief-style work shows men and women in moments of struggle: laid off, cast out, down but not always entirely without hope.
The twins sculpt these figures out of clay, sometimes casting them in resin, then paint them, usually with a heavy use of red, white, and blue. They then create settings for their characters out of debris they’ve salvaged from factories closed or torn down – gears, tools, scraps of corrugated steel, all still smelling of oil and smoke. While the brothers aren’t formally religious, the pieces often have the feel of an altar or shrine, or the Stations of the Cross, in composition and in quiet touches of biblical imagery.
“It’s our way of honoring working-class people,” Kyle says of the pieces, which are inspired by stories he and Kelly have collected on visits to hundreds of shuttered factories, union halls, and bars where the locals gather. “We don’t put anybody on a pedestal. Our father never put himself on one. He just did what he had to do to support the family.”
Kelly and Kyle are the first to acknowledge that these gritty works can look a bit incongruous on a pristine white gallery wall, and that a pair of factory sons made an unlikely choice in pursuing art instead of a trade. Then again, they’ll tell you, they never did what was expected of them. They were big men who didn’t play football, African Americans who listened to punk rock and country music, tough-looking guys who could sensitively handle the smallest paintbrush. They were kids from “literally the wrong side of the tracks,” as Kelly observes, who have made their careers in the elite worlds of art and academia. Kelly is an associate professor and acting chair of the art department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, and Kyle is an associate professor of visual arts at the nearby University of Dayton.
When not teaching, they’re in their studio at Kyle’s house, conceptualizing works together and executing them in a kind of intuitive harmony, rotating tasks side-by-side and back-to-back, like an assembly line.
Theirs is what Kyle calls a “strange and wonderful” relationship, extraordinarily close in every way, even for twins. Though both are married, with their own homes, each regards the other as essentially a second self. They consider their work to be that of a single artist, and they sign each piece with their shared initials, K.E.P, for Kyle Edward and Kelly Eugene.
They’ve been collaborating creatively all their lives. “We were always in the garage, making our own toys out of junk and scrap wood,” Kyle says. They got their handiness from their father, who continues to be an inveterate builder and tinkerer even in retirement. Their late mother, too, was good with her hands; she made dolls and had her own upholstery business. The brothers took every art class possible in high school, then majored in art at Ball State University. To earn some money after graduation in 1996, they came home and took temporary jobs at the plant, cutting teeth into transmission gears.
“It was horrendous – dark, sticky, hot,” Kelly remembers. “The noise was deafening, un-interrupted – the droning of the machines, loud bangs.” After a while, he adds, a sort of dehumanization set in. “You start to get in rhythm and in tune with the machine. Then you become one with the machine. Then you become the machine.” The experience was an eye-opener, one they would draw on later for their art.
The twins enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Kentucky, where they took up clay in earnest under the tutelage of ceramist and sculptor Bobby Scroggins, a friend and mentor to this day. When they arrived at the school, they were still making what they describe as “angry black man art” – overt statements about racism, slavery, and the civil rights movement, work that today they regard as superficial. Not that they dismiss their own youthful sincerity, or that those issues aren’t important or relevant to them; but the images simply didn’t come from their life experience, so they didn’t resonate as art. A professor called them out on it and the criticism hurt, but it made them think. Eventually they realized they wanted their message to be more inclusive. They began to tap into their working-class identity, a subject that not only felt personally authentic, but was universal, transcending race and gender – and yet still rich material for social commentary. As Kelly says, “The work is about American people. It’s what’s going on today.”
Since that turning point in the late 1990s, Kelly and Kyle have continued to explore this rich terrain. They’ve gone beyond the factory to call attention to other “invisible” people: the homeless veteran with all his belongings (including an American flag) in a cart; the unseen maid who cleans the hotel room or public lavatory; the migrant farm worker who picks strawberries and tomatoes, then disappears with the season. Whenever possible, they try to bring their work to union halls and other public spaces where it can be seen by people who don’t necessarily go to museums. They urge their students to look for inspiration in the real life and materials all around them.
“Your subject matter can be with you for years, until you open up your eyes and really see it before you,” says Kyle.
“But the more you explore through the use of materials, the more you learn from looking at history, then the more apt you’ll be to find who you are in this world – what your true voice is.”
Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.