Kyle & Kelly Phelps
“We make no bones about why we choose paint as a surface of our work. We started out as painters then found ceramics but retained our painting skills and put them to work. So, our advice would be to respect tradition, but don’t be afraid explore all mediums.”
“The biggest thing we would tell a ceramicist or any artist for that matter is to make art that matters! Simple… make art that makes a connection to the people from where they are.” Kyle and Kelly Phelps are a dynamic “twinz” duo whose incredible art is bringing the stories and experiences of blue-collar workers straight to the viewers in captivating ways that leave the eyes hungry for more. Their pieces act as vibrant snapshots of life; whether showcasing the stories of working-class communities or using an artistic magnifying glass to scrutinize social issues, the twinz have mastered the ability to highlight both the struggles and triumphs of the people who inspire them. Using every tool in their box, Kyle and Kelly weave intricate stories into pieces that command a room by evoking emotions, demand introspection and discourse, and highlight the incredible skill and talent with which they were created. The brothers draw on their own experiences and memories from growing up in a blue-collar community and said, “It’s funny our inspiration was always right in front of us, and we didn’t realize it. Living in the middle of the rustbelt Midwest, we grew up in a blue-collar working-class community. Factories, foundries, warehouses, railyards were all around us. Our family, neighbors, community all worked in these plants”.
Kyle & Kelly Phelps grew up in New Castle, Indiana. The twinz had their first taste of working-class communities and were employed along with some of their family members in a local factory. Kyle & Kelly earned BFA’s with concentrations in ceramics and sculpture in 1996, but their choice to venture into the world of sculpture and ceramics wasn’t the easiest to make. As they explained in their 2016 Ceramic Monthly feature, “This was a risky decision for us especially since we came up from a proud blue-collar, working-class background where you were expected to work in the plants, factories, steel mills, foundries, and warehouses that surrounded the community”. While Kyle & Kelly draw inspiration from their own family stories, it wasn’t until meeting Bobby Scroggins at an art exhibition in 1996 and discovering he was a professor in ceramics that the Phelps brothers even thought about going to graduate school. Kyle and Kelly explained that, “our families have had a huge impact on our work and life. We pay tribute and tell their stories to keep their memories alive. Outside of our inspiration from our families, we were mentored by ceramic artist Bobby Scroggins who is a Professor of Ceramics at the University of Kentucky where we attended graduated school. Bobby was one of just a handful of African American Professors in the country. Bobby inspired us to continue in his footsteps to ultimately become the Professors in Ceramics and Sculpture we are today”. The twinz also draw inspiration from other artists and said that, “one of the most inspirational art influences that still impacts our work to this day is the work of Diego Rivera and his mural work called “The Detroit Industry murals” located in the Detroit Art Institute Detroit, Michigan”.
Kyle and Kelly explained that their love for ceramics came from an overall love of art; “We chose to get into ceramics because of our love of art in general. We loved all forms from drawing, painting to ceramics, and sculpture. Early on we made the decision to explore all art skills and mediums when making art. We were never hindered by rules of separating art materials and processes. That experience really freed us from working in a singular medium or discipline”. The choice to explore all mediums and to continue expanding their skills is one that Kyle and Kelly hope to inspire in other artists – they explained that they are, “firm believers in making art, and not be caught up in ridiculous categories that end up being more divisive than inclusive. We are all taught various art skills but tend to end up using them in singular ways. Focus on the art making, but use the greater toolbox that art has to offer. We have students who are great painters, but when you look at their ceramic work you would never see those other art skills. We make no bones about why we choose paint as a surface of our work. We started out as painters then found ceramics but retained our painting skills and put them to work. So, our advice would be to respect tradition, but don’t be afraid explore all mediums”. Kyle and Kelly’s work explores the daily life and struggles of blue-collar workers, and incorporates “found objects” that they collect themselves. As they explained to Ceramics Monthly, “We travel around the Rust Belt and beyond to collect, archive, and appropriate materials from abandoned factories, mills, and warehouse complexes. These artifacts are then juxtaposed with our hand-crafted ceramic figures to create authentic figurative narratives”. Their work also looks to explore other social issues, as well as how these topics may intertwine. In a feature published by the Carbondale Clay Center, Kyle and Kelly said that, “Outside of our blue-collar working-class art that we are most widely known for, we also explore the intersections of other social issues that affect our world today. Social topics like but not limited to political, environmental, race, religion, class, sexuality, gender, poverty, war, and other issues of our time are also being explored”.
Once their journey began, there was just no stopping it. With pieces that demand and provoke emotion, thought, and discourse from the viewers, Kyle and Kelly have proved themselves a force to be reconned with in this industry. By taking their determination and talent and driving it towards their goals, the Phelps twins have found incredible success; Kelly is a professor at Xavier University, oversees the sculpture department, and chaired the department of art from 2012 – 2019, while Kyle is a professor at Dayton University, and is the head of the ceramics and sculpture departments. The Phelps twins have gallery representation in Hooks-Epstein Galleries in Houston and the Echt Gallery in Chicago and have been featured many times by various publications including Ceramic Monthly, the American Craft Magazine, USA Today, Radar Magazine, Lea Arts and Entertainment Magazine, and the Carbondale Clay Center. Their work is coveted, and they have pieces in the permanent collections of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts in Texas, the Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin, the Canton Art Museum in Ohio, the Asheville Art Museum in North Caroline, the Frank Museum of Art at Otterbien University in Ohio, and they have a statue of jazz musician Eric Dolphy on permanent display in Le Moyne College campus in New York, just to name a few. Their work can also be found in the private collections of musician Bootsy Collins, director Michael Moore, and actor Morgan Freeman.
The path to success has not been without it’s challenges though; the adversities and stigmas that artists of color face within the industry is a tragedy that is not as recognized as it should be. Additionally, the accessibility and visibility of artists of color is vital and should be at the forefront of changes in this community. As Kyle and Kelly put it, “We are visual artists 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year… meaning we are not just visual artist during the month of February, the shortest month of the year! Although we both fully understand, respect, and appreciate the intentions of Black History Month, we are more than one month! Then there is the expectation to be the spokesperson for an entire race. Our working-class work is not overtly about race, although we do address works about social justice, and race issues in America. We have had criticism that our work was not Afrocentric enough because our work does not exclusively use themes based on the African American experience. Our work not only talks about the challenges of race, but also our rich working-class heritage. At times there seems to be an expectation from society that being a black artist means to make “angry black man” art. So how do we overcome these challenges. We keep making the work! F… them whoever they may be!” The dedication to “making art that matters” no matter the obstacles is one that Kyle & Kelly hope to pass on to other artists. When asked how they hoped to inspire others, they said, “Simple…We would tell other artist to just make art! No matter what struggles, adversities, or challenges you may encounter, keep making art! Stay the path. As we stated above respect tradition, learn it all, but don’t be afraid explore, and integrate materials, mediums, and processes”. Their sheer determination and talent have helped them to overcome obstacles and they have forged success within ceramics and sculpture with pieces that are beautiful, intricate, and breathtaking; however, their dedication towards creating real change within the community should be commended just as highly. The Phelps brothers explained that their positions within ceramics, sculpture, and art education is their most important contribution to this industry and said, “Our favorite or most important contribution to the ceramics world is the fact that we are both teaching courses as Full Professors in Ceramics and Sculpture. Just being people of color and being visible to students is an important contribution. It’s important especially for students to see that there are ceramists of color in the ceramic world”. During Bracker’s Community in Clay talks for NCECA 2021, the Diversity in Clay project made its first appearance at the national conference, and the Phelps brothers actively participated with invaluable stories, experiences, and discourse about diversity, inclusion, equity, the challenges artists of color face within the industry, and steps that can be taken to alleviate some of these challenges. Kyle and Kelly Phelps create exquisite pieces that capture blue-collar, working community life in all its triumphs and struggles while artistically capturing, portraying, and discussing societal issues and the beauty and truth of their inspirations. Their pieces bring light to the stories of their inspirations and then demand thought and dialogue from the viewers. Through their incredible work, and their own involvement, the Phelps brothers are taking an active role in creating the discussions and change that are so very needed.
Publications & Features
Educational/Personal Growth Opportunity
“The biggest thing we would tell a ceramacist or any artist for that matter is to make art that matters! Simple…make art that makes a connection to the people from where they are. We are also firm believers in making art, and not be caught up in ridiculous categories that end up being more divisive than inclusive. Our advice would be to respect tradition, but don’t be afraid to explore all mediums. Simple…we would tell other artists to just make art! No matter what struggles, adversities, or challenges you may encounter, keep making art! Stay the path. As we stated above respect tradition, learn it all, but don’t be afraid to explore, and integrate materials, mediums, and processes.”
“We are all taught various art skills but tend to end up using them in singular ways. Focus on the art making, but use the greater toolbox that art has to offer.” What other types of skills, techniques, or mediums could you use in your pieces? Take some time to play and see how you can incorporate these into your creations.
“Directory.” Kyle E. Phelps : University of Dayton, Ohio, udayton.edu/directory/artssciences/artanddesign/phelps_kyle.php.
“Kelly Phelps.” Xavier University, www.xavier.edu/art-department/directory/kelly-phelps.
“Kyle & Kelly Phelps Exhibition.” Carbondale Clay Center, 28 Aug. 2021, www.carbondaleclay.org/events/2021/7/10/kyle-amp-kelly-phelps-exhibition.
Phelps, Kelly and Kyle. “Spotlight: Working Collectively.” Ceramic Arts Network, 29 May 2015, ceramicartsnetwork.org/ceramics-monthly/ceramic-art-and-artists/ceramic-artists/spotlight-working-collectively/#.
Phelps, Kelly and Kyle. “Studio Visit: Kelly and Kyle Phelps, Centerville, Ohio.” Ceramic Arts Network, Dec. 2016, ceramicartsnetwork.org/ceramics-monthly/ceramic-art-and-artists/ceramic-artists/kelly-kyle-phelps-centerville-ohio/#.