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Double take on making art: southwest Ohio's Kyle and Kelly Phelps

Kelly (left) and Kyle (right) Phelps
Kelly (left) and Kyle (right) Phelps in their Dayton studio
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Susan Byrnes
Kelly (left) and Kyle (right) Phelps in their Dayton studio

Note from the producer: this is the fourth episode of the third season of a series on WYSO called  Studio Visit. This season, I focus on artists who regularly work with collaborators or have creative partners in their families who influence or participate in making art.

The featured artists will use various media, from photography to sculpture. Each segment will feature artist collaborators and include a brief biography, a sound-rich scene of a visit to their studio, and an interview about their work and how they connect creatively.

Sculptors and twin brothers Kyle and Kelly Phelps say they learned their craft in art school and the auto factory.

The Phelps' are identical twins. They look the same down to their shaved heads, clothes, and spider web tattoos on their left elbows. They’re both sculpture professors at Catholic universities in southwest Ohio: Kelly works at Xavier University, and Kyle works at the University of Dayton (UD).

I met them at the UD sculpture studio at the end of the fall semester.

“Our studio is transitioning, so things are boxed up and away. After classes, we bring our work in, and so it's a home away from home,” Kyle says.

Kelly is in the background, hammering away at a sculpture. They work together on every piece of art they make. As they see it, they are one artist, two bodies.

"It’s foreign and alien to others, but it's completely natural, and we embrace it." Kyle says, "We've done the same things since early childhood.”

Kyle (left) and Kelly (right) Phelps
Susan Byrnes
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WYSO
Kyle (left) and Kelly (right) Phelps

The twins were the youngest of eight kids. They were raised in a Black family in the mostly white Midwestern factory town of New Castle, Indiana.

"Growing up in a kind of an artless town made us look around and try to reinvent art that depicted people that look like us, whether it be white or Black. They were factory workers. They were people who worked in the mill, on the assembly lines, or in the warehouses.” Kelly says, "You don't see them at the forefront, and those are the people that are important for us because my mom and dad worked in the mills, they worked in the factories. They're the makers of everything but the least represented.”

So, they give working people center stage in their sculptures.

Detail of Metal siding
Susan Byrnes
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Susan Byrnes
Detail of Metal siding

In each piece, there’s a figure surrounded by a shadowbox frame, like the shrines of saints the brothers saw in church as kids.

One sculpture on the worktable contains a man, a hard hat under his arm, gazing into the distance. His coveralls are gritty, and there are tiny details like stickers on his thermos and the individual teeth of a zipper. He’s made of clay, but the twins use found objects for the frames.

“We went through several sabbaticals where we would go and travel up and down the Rust Belt, and we would go to specific closed-down factories,” Kyle says.

At those closed factories, they collected beat-up wood and old sheet metal.

"We'd use it because...there was once a factory that was there for 100 years, and it gets scraped off the earth as it never existed." Kyle says, "It's not African American history. It's not white history. It's American history that once served everybody. And now it's completely gone. “

But it's not gone in their sculptures. Kelly hammers a piece of metal onto the frame. The next step brings the full factory experience to their art-making process.

“So sometimes we take some cutting fluid and soak it into the work. This is still in the work, so you'll have that sense of smell. It's a real greasy, gritty, nasty smell." Kelly says, "Or we'll take the torch, and then after we're done setting the metal, we will essentially set it on fire, burn it to distress it, and that soot residue will sit on the surface. And when you walk up to it, you smell that grittiness.”

The smell of torched metal has stayed with them since their factory days, as has the work ethic. Like an assembly line, they make five or six sculptures at a time. They sculpt their figures similarly so they can work on them interchangeably.

“I think for Kyle and I, going back to this whole factory mentality, there's very little individualism when working in a plant. I can't start with a Chevette and end up with a Corvette at the end. It still has to be a Chevette." Kelly says, "By learning these things and understanding technique and process, that’s one part of it, but there's also that kind of subconscious thing. We both have the same vision of what it should look like. Regardless if it's Kyle's right or my right hand, in the end, it's got to look like this because that's how it's supposed to be.”

The way it’s always been for them. It makes no difference who made what. It’s about the work.

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Susan works as visual artist, arts writer, teaching artist, and audio producer. She lives in Cincinnati now but loves, misses, and often visits the Miami Valley. You can find her visual and audio works on her website www.susanbstudio.com.