Found Objects and a Found Voice

Thomas Phelps speaks through his art

By Saad Ghosn

Thomas Phelps in his basement studio. Photo by Saad Ghosn.

“I am a tinkerer,” Thomas Phelps says. “All my life I have collected stuff – found and discarded objects I have used to make things out of my imagination. I give them a new life and a voice. They end up speaking for me.”

Phelps, a mixed media/installation artist, was born in 1939 in Cincinnati, where he currently resides. He is of African-American origin, the son of parents who relocated from the South. Until the age of 21 he grew up in the West End neighborhood of Cincinnati, in the Lincoln Courts housing project for low-income families.

In elementary school he was introduced to art, and his creative ability was recognized and encouraged by his art teachers all along. He won several art contests, including a citywide contest in ninth grade, sponsored by Shillito’s; it earned him a one-year scholarship to attend the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Phelps’s social awareness was practically lacking while growing up. The housing project where he lived and spent most of his time was his world; it kept him isolated and protected, disconnected from the rest of society. There and at school he mostly encountered fellow African Americans, with no direct reasons for racial questioning or confrontation. His parents, who had experienced the oppressive South, did not want him to deal with such issues.

“My social awakening to racial and ethnic discrimination came only at the age of 17,” Phelps says. “It was, however, in relation to the Native Americans’ plight. I read by chance an article describing the slaughter by thousands of buffalos to starve the Indians who relied on their meat; also how at one point the Indians were given blankets infested with smallpox in order to decimate them. I was appalled and revolted, and these injustices stayed with me.”

Phelps’s artwork, until then with no specific statement, started addressing the American Indian situation. Mr. and Ms. Red is a painting that depicts an isolated and powerless Native American couple, separated from their community. They Slaughtered Me to Kill Us, a mixed-media piece, superimposed the image of an American Indian and that of a buffalo, a reflection on the history of the U.S. government as it pertains to Native Americans.

Who Are the Founding Fathers?, a mixed-media hanging quilt incorporating found objects, shows a picture of four American Indian men positioned in front of the four U.S. presidents on Mount Rushmore. In the center of the piece is a T-shirt depicting American Indians on horseback and in war apparel; it says, “Fighting terrorism since 1492,” ironically questioning who are the terrorists when it comes to Native American history.

In the 1960s, thanks to the civil rights movement, Phelps became more aware of the issue. His black identity, its culture and its ancestral roots became very important to him. Through the Cincinnati Art Museum and traveling traders, he discovered African art and artifacts; he was taken by the fetishes, their imagery, their meaning. He also came across yard art brought from the South that connected him to the spirit of African ancestors.

“Society was trying to de-Africanize and demonize us,” he says. “They associated our culture with voodoos, devils, sorcery. For me, these artifacts spoke loud through their rawness and sense of mystery; they grew on me, impacted me strongly even when not fully understanding them.”

Phelps’s work shifted then to mixed-media installations influenced by the African art he was experiencing; they became his identity statement, a cultural connection to his background and origin.

“I did not use my art to make statements about the civil rights movement going on at the time,” he says. “I used it instead to assert who I was, to connect to the history of blacks in this country and elsewhere. Once I found the link to my roots, I kept speaking to it, and nobody could take it away from me.”

In the 1980s, with Jimi Jones and Ken Leslie, two African-American artists from Cincinnati who felt like him, Phelps co-founded the Neo Ancestral artists’ collective movement. Their goal was to make artistic visual statements related to African-American identity, legacy, community and culture.

On his own or as part of the group, Phelps continued creating his statement in mixed-media installations. He would exhibit them in public or private venues, outdoors or indoors, such as at Third World Gallery, which featured African-American art, and at the Arts Consortium, the Contemporary Arts Center, the Weston Art Gallery and the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Imprisonment, created for the Weston show, consisted of fences, posts, bars, a hanging body, a target image and weapons. It alluded to institutional prisons, but also to the isolated and confined condition of many minorities, the vulnerability and violent victimization of the poor and weak in our society.

Watermelon Mama and the Melon Chilluns Fetish, recently exhibited at the Cincinnati Art Museum, was part of a series of installations Phelps created based on postcards that debased and degraded the black race, associating it with watermelons, cotton and animals. It shows on one side a black baby in a cradle with a watermelon and a cross, the baby in his innocence and nakedness reminiscent of Jesus Christ, also a victim to this world; and the cross symbolizing the hypocrisy of hateful acts in the name of Christianity. The other side displays an African lady, two babies, watermelons, cotton and crosses.

“I meant my piece in defense of all human beings, plants, animals, objects and subjects of unjust, vulgarized characterization, by civilized, God-avowed human beings in the USA,” he says.

Phelps also used his art to make statements about wars, their casualties and the military-industrial complex. His installation, Weapon of War Fetish, created for an SOS Art show, reflects on how military efforts support and produce aggressive weapons, propaganda and monetary gain.

“I will always be a pacific activist,” Phelps says. “My art advocates my ideas, my beliefs, my history. It is my outlet and my voice. It empowers me and possibly others who want to hear; I do not use it, however, to convince or impose my views.”