Advocating for the “Invisible” Worker

Kelly and Kyle Phelps combine their potent voices to address class issues

By:  Saad Ghosn, Contributing Writer


Kelly and Kyle Phelps in their basement studio. Photo by Bill Howes

Kelly and Kyle Phelps, identical twin brothers and well known local sculptor artists work all the time in tandem, like right and left hand. In undergraduate and graduate schools, they applied to the same university for the same degree, did all assignments collaboratively, sat in unison for the same art critiques. Kelly even accompanied Kyle for his job interview at University of Dayton, answered all questions asked, and as a result both were hired to teach together the same class.

“We’ve had a shared story and experience for ever,” they say. “Our relation is everywhere in our life, we studied, did chores at home, worked… always together. We support each other, contaminate each other’s ideas and work; it ceases to be a one person’s authorship.”

The Phelps grew up in New Castle, Indiana, a working middle class small factory town with bi-racial parents. Their father and sister were factory workers their entire professional life, as were the majority of the residents of the town. They, too, after college, worked for a while as gear cutters at Borg Warner Gear in Muncie, Indiana, and had the opportunity to actually “walk in the shoes” of a factory worker.

The Phelps turned their life experiences into an ongoing advocacy for the blue collar worker, the factory laborer, the common individual made invisible in our society. They identified with them as they were their parents, their neighbors, and to a certain extent themselves. They used their strong two-voiced art to call attention to their plight and condition.

“Our works are about regular every day individuals, not celebrities,” they say. “Our people are those who work in plants, disenfranchised, generally ignored.”

The Phelps received their BFA from Ball State University and MFA in Ceramics and Sculpture from University of Kentucky/Lexington. They are currently Associate Professors of fine arts, Kelly at Xavier University/Cincinnati, Kyle at University of Dayton.

In undergrad school their work was mostly based on art principles, design, material manipulation. They did also, to paraphrase them, the “angry black man” work, addressing race and slavery, topics until then not part of their daily concern.

“Growing up in a predominantly white small town, where everyone worked in the factory focusing on making a living, we knew nothing about slavery or racial tension,” they say. “College introduced us to them and we felt like addressing them in our work. We quickly, however, realized that our real issues stood elsewhere.”

In grad school the Phelps found their inner voice. Their work changed and became about “angry people” in general, race taking a larger transcendental dimension, associated with the every day working class.

They started addressing the world of factories, their poor, dangerous and stressful work conditions, the hidden sweat behind every part produced, the threat of globalization and technology for workers’ livelihood, the devastating effect of closing factories for families who relied on them from father to son, the feeling of fear, abandonment and sudden joblessness of the many… and at the same time the destruction, erasing and disappearance of buildings, infrastructure and culture, until then the blood of many towns, on which America was built.

Predominantly 3 dimensional, mostly wall hanging relief sculptures, their work include not only their own imagery, figures and handcrafted ceramic forms, but also objects retrieved directly from factory sites: scorched and corrugated sheet metal, wooden pallets, tools, etc. “These added ‘truthful’ archival materials provide witnessing and authenticity of time, place and history to our pieces and to the issues they address,” they say.

Us and them, a wall sculpture part of Michael Moore’s art collection, contrasts conditions of factory workers to those of upper class administrators. Using for background a piece of roofing material recovered from an old Buick plant, it depicts on its left, in clay, a group of workers dressed in greasy dirty clothes, separated, on its right, from a group of individuals in suits and ties, holding briefcases, cigars, coffee cups… It underlines divisiveness in factories, administrators removed from the daily reality of workers, from the issues they face, disconnected as if in a different world.

In News of the Layoff, the Phelps address the distressed reaction of workers to closing of factories, result of NAFTA and globalization politics. The sculpture shows two distraught workers worrying about their future; they are surrounded by remnant tools, clothes, corrugated material, items collected from abandoned factories.

Off the Cross, meant literally as a ‘working class crucifixion’, is about workers who believed in the factory as their religion, devoted all their life to it, yet found themselves victimized, abandoned by it.

The worker’s Altar, a wall sculpture influenced by religious triptychs, is composed of 3 vertical compartments, the right and left representing Adam and Eve as struggling workers, the center, two hands holding a gear and underneath various tools. The hands, casted from a real worker’s hands, allude to those of God trying to protect the factory and its workers.

The Worker’s Altar, mixed media wall sculpture and photo by Kelly and Kyle Phelps

Phelps’ works later addressed single female workers becoming bread winners of their families. Miss America, about women in the workplace, easily applies to their sister who worked for many years in the heat treat dangerous area of the factory. Lately, they started addressing workers in general, every day laborers, irrespective of their job.

“We went to a hotel for a conference and found most workers to be immigrants, Latinos, with same plight as factory workers… They work in luxurious places, yet live crammed many in a single room,” they say.

Their Migrant Worker, juxtaposes a Latina to a box of tomato cans; it points to the fact that tomatoes did not pop into the can by themselves but by individuals, often women, who worked hard, were generally poorly treated, kept invisible.

Their works also deal with war and its effect on simple citizens, the military, in their mind, having become the new working class factory, where poor, Latinos and Blacks enlist just to make a living. Their piece Dennis Osborne, an Ohio soldier crying at the death of his unit members, is in thinking of their own students.

“We consider ourselves activists,” the Phelps say.  “As educators we teach, inform, shape minds. Our visual art seeks to create truth; we want it to achieve awareness, appreciation, respect …. We want people to know the everyday struggles of common men and women. We feel obliged to share what we know.”