Sculpting a Way of Life
By Lena Davie
Echoing from the perimeter of the gloomy, old structure with tinted windows, the sounds of hammering and drilling are all too familiar. The polished smoke stacks hint at the progress inside, where the hardened workers begin their daily routine. Cringing at the thought of beginning yet another shift, the workers march to the time clock area, where their lives are measured in minutes and seconds. The raw-casting molten metal illuminates the factory as automotive transmissions are made in the shadows. The air reeks of cutting oil intermingling with the scent of charred burnt metal.
The factory is a way of life in New Castle, Ind., and one known all too well to Kelly and Kyle Phelps. Third-generation factory workers, the twin brothers were determined to change their fates and their family’s cycle. They left the factory behind to pursue degrees in fine art, but the factory didn’t leave them. The two are now art professors who dedicate their work—much of which fills an extensive gallery of three-dimensional wall- and life-sized sculptures—to the factories and those who toil in them.
“We both started in the factory, looking up to my father as a hero and role model because of his work,” says Kelly Phelps, assistant professor in Xavier’s department of art. “We always see ads on television about the end product, but the workers’ class is not represented.”
The reference to “we” is common among Kelly and Kyle, a fine art professor at the University of Dayton. They have collaborated on more than 60 pieces since leaving their jobs in the factory in 1997 to work toward master’s degrees in ceramics and sculpture at the University of Kentucky. What's unique about their artwork is not only does it depict scenes from the daily struggles of the working class, but it is physically made of relics of factory life—scrap metal, gears, wrenches, fiberglass, and the like.
Their collection of factory-inspired work is now on display in Cohen Art Gallery, where it is remaining until Friday, March 12. On Friday, Feb. 20, the artists are hosting a public reception at the exhibit from 6:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m. Pieces of their collection also can be viewed in an online gallery on the art department’s web site.
With artwork displayed in major industrial cities, the artists have received mixed reactions from their audiences. While exhibiting their sculptures in the North, feedback typically centers on the now-closed steel factories in the area. Southern audiences, however, tend to reflect on the hardships faced in the coal mines and textile mills after seeing the artists’ work. Sold privately and publicly in art galleries and exhibits, the sculptures reflect a universal significance that remains the same despite the region.
At one time, the artists were living depictions of their art, laboring in the Indiana-based Borg-Warner Automotive factory building raw castings for transmissions and transfer cases for SUVs and light trucks. A water tower and leftover sheet metal adorned the factory where workers carried the same facial expressions all day. There was no silence, and workers became one with the roar and clatter of the World War II machinery that overpowered the hushed hum of modern technology and created a fog of existence.
On his few and limited breaks, Kelly would pull out his pad and sketch the poses of the workers and the various materials and machines that surrounded them. While both brothers already had obtained their fine art undergraduate degrees from Ball State University in 1996 prior to entering the factory, there were few opportunities where they could apply their talent. Following their father’s footsteps, they entered the factory themselves, forcing maturity and garnering a better understanding of their father, their co-workers and their artistic skills.
“While we did not have time to be artistic while at the factory, it made us grow up a lot,” Kelly says. “When our father worked, we didn’t have anything to think about. It wasn’t until we had to go back to the plant that we had a greater appreciation for the worker-class struggle.”
This appreciation led to more inspiration for the brothers when they returned to the classroom to apply their experiences in life-like sculptures at the University of Kentucky.
Last October, the Phelpses had the opportunity to meet one of their inspirations here at the University when Oscar-winning filmmaker and best-selling author Michael Moore visited campus. The Phelpses personally presented Moore one of their sculptures to commemorate his efforts to educate the world about the plight of factory workers in his various documentary films.
“Moore’s film ‘Roger and Me’ influenced us because he is not afraid to speak about the effects of poverty, mass unemployment and other worker struggles.”
Factory workers’ responses to the sculptures generally have been positive, though they are still shocked to see themselves as part of the art world. To this end, the twins consider muralist painter and acclaimed artist of the 20th century Diego Rivera a strong influence. Rivera was deemed a revolutionist for taking his art to the streets and creating a realist style bursting with social content.
“Rivera focused a lot on struggles of the workers-class and industry,” Kelly says, “and it became important for us to carry it on with the truth of these images as we record this just like a journal.”