The Lesson of Life: Joe Pichler’s Climb up the Food Chain

Joe Pichler calls himself “the luckiest man in the world.” It wasn’t always so.

The man who would one day lead one of the largest grocery chains in the country began life happily enough as the fifth of six children in a family led by Anton Pichler, an Austrian who served the Austro-Hungarian empire as a soldier and emigrated in 1911 to the United States, where he found work as a waiter at Schumacher’s Restaurant in St. Louis. His long days waiting tables eventually allowed him to buy the business.

But the world of the happy, working-class, Catholic family came crashing down when Anton suffered a stroke that affected his speech and his ability to walk—and work. Pichler was only 11, but he remembers how everyone had to pitch in to help their mother, Anita, who had to manage the business by day and her family at night.

The family’s resiliency was challenged again three years later when their mother developed cancer and died. When Anton died a year later, the three brothers and three sisters turned to each other.

“It was the family supporting each other that made life not only livable but actually joyful,” Pichler says. “My sisters and brothers taught me to take life as it comes and to celebrate it.”

Pichler has been celebrating life ever since. The life lessons he learned from his parents and the Jesuit teachers who educated him about hard work and caring for others are lessons he carried into his adult life. “My parents are my heroes,” he says.

The fact they never gave up was not lost on him or his siblings. And the glue that connected them to each other after their parents were gone is what helped Pichler get through college and get his start in life. When he was accepted to the University of Notre Dame, Pichler’s older brother, Frank, and sister, Rosie, helped pay his first-year expenses with money they were saving for their own children. Pichler also worked odd jobs—21 in all—to pay his way through college, even after he was awarded a scholarship, earning his business degree in 1961. He followed that with a scholarship to the University of Chicago where he earned an MBA and a PhD in business in 1966, and a position as a tenured professor at the University of Kansas for 15 years, including six years as dean of the business school.

[divider] A lifetime of honors [/divider]

• Watch: A video from Pichler being named a “Great Living Cincinnatian” in 2008.
• Watch: A video from Xavier honoring Pichler with the Founders’ Day Award in 2013.
• Watch: A video of Pichler being honored by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.

[divider] • • • [/divider]

While at Kansas, Pichler served on the board of the Dillon Companies, a grocery store chain. In 1980, they asked him to join the company as executive vice president. That meant leaving academe. “It was a hard decision, but I decided it was an opportunity to run a New York Stock Exchange company.” After two years, he was named president, just before Dillon merged with Kroger in 1983. And in 1986 he was appointed president of Kroger. That’s when he and his wife, Susan, moved to Cincinnati with their four children.

“It was a company of high integrity, and I thought I could live the Jesuit mission here, being people for others, in maintaining the integrity of the company and recognizing we are an important industry because we feed people,” he says.

Outside the company, Pichler and Susan plunged headfirst into Cincinnati’s charitable communities. Joe serves on the board of The Salvation Army and was a leading figure on Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine development group that oversaw the revitalization of Washington Park and its surroundings. Susan, a former teacher, has volunteered for years as a reading tutor at schools supported by the Catholic Inner-city Schools Education Fund (CISE), which they also support financially. And together they founded the CISE Scholarship Fund that helps pay high school tuition for students from CISE elementary schools.

The combination of service work and corporate leadership caught the attention of former Xavier President James Hoff, S.J., who approached Pichler in 1993 with an offer to join Xavier’s Board of Trustees. “He was irresistible, and I had great admiration for Xavier and I was honored to be asked,” he says.

Pichler has been on the board for 20 years, including five years as chairman. This year, he agreed to chair the development committee of the board, which is preparing for the next capital campaign. Just a few months ago, he was recognized for his contributions to Xavier as the recipient of the Founders’ Day Award.

“In addition to a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, St. Louis U. High School taught us the Ignatian gifts of spiritual reflection, ethical behavior, compassion and service to others,” he said upon receiving the award. “We learned to ‘open’ ourselves in order to become ‘men and women for others.’ Does that sound familiar? I think you will find those same virtues embedded in Xavier’s ‘Mission, Vision and Values Statement.’ These ideas form the foundation for a fulfilling life. They provide perspective for considering the events of this world and they urge us to take action that all serve the common good. For Jesuits, the action word is Magis: ‘More…always more.’ There is always more good that we can do if we are open to the call.”

[Read Pichler’s complete Founders’ Day speech.]

Thinking about how far he’s come, he says, “My father would be amazed.” But he never takes full credit, because there have always been others helping him every step of the way. Which is why he considers himself so lucky.

“My reward is the knowledge that I’m at least trying to be a person for others, and that’s the code I started out with in high school,” he says. “People have been very generous to me, and I would feel absolutely negligent if I weren’t generous to others.”

 

Future’s Market: Mentoring neighboring school children

It’s an early spring afternoon and Bryan Cannon, principal of the Alliance Academy charter school, hits the streets with about a dozen seventh and eighth graders in tow. They turn right on Montgomery Road, then hang a left onto Dana Avenue.

Their destination—the polished wood, widescreens and brushed steel of the Fifth Third Trading Center, crown jewel of the Williams College of Business. Scheduled is a biweekly meeting with the student managers of Xavier’s D’Artagnan Capital Fund to discuss all things financial. And yes, there is pizza.

The meeting is part of the Financial Literacy Program, a student mentoring program masterminded by associate professor of finance David Hyland. For the past two years, he’s partnered with Alliance Academy to introduce middle school students to college students—and to the world of commerce. Together, they cover everything from balancing a checkbook to maintaining a stock portfolio.

“We get neighborhood kids who go by this place all the time and see this imposing thing they could never think of,” says Hyland. “We invite them on campus and tell them, hey, there are real people here, too, and there’s no reason why you can’t come here, or somewhere like here.”

“Last year my kids learned about stocks, investment and even basic things about banking and budgets,” says Cannon. “It was so beneficial for them to learn something they weren’t familiar with.”

The program is run by the Xavier students who also manage roughly $1.6 million of the University’s endowment through the D’Artagnan Capital Fund, which Hyland also oversees.

Why mix college business majors with middle school city kids? One reason is to add a human touch to a world that’s typically perceived as being driven by numbers and a bottom line.

Plus, Hyland clearly enjoys his role of mentoring mentors. “I’m a big believer in delegating. I view my role as more of a facilitator.”

But Hyland had only just begun to facilitate. Amid the professor, principal, middle-schoolers and college students, he added real-world experience in the person of Robert Donelan, a retired Fidelity Investments executive. Hyland wanted Donelan to bring his street-level perspective on finance to the pizza party.

“[Hyland] was like, ‘Hey, we’re doing something with the Alliance Academy, would you like to help me put something together on financial literacy?’ So I put a course curriculum together, which included things like: What are the basic things to do to get a job? How do you manage money? How do you invest money?”

They arranged for the kids to go to Fidelity’s operations in Covington, Ky., where most of its U.S. transactions are processed—a facility large enough to warrant its own zip code and where the glamour of Wall Street meets the reality of the back office. It was a trip, Donelan says, that gave the kids insights that everyone could use.

“You’d be surprised,” he says. “There are doctors and lawyers who haven’t got a clue as to how to manage their retirement savings. And the earlier you start kids, the better.”

The Alliance/Xavier partnership began in the spring of 2012 as, of all things, a simple stock market game. Cannon picked students from his own after-school male mentoring program to go to Xavier and play. Hyland, though, found himself looking forward to these meetings as much as the students.

“Every week the kids would come over, we’d have pizza or snacks, then fire up the computers and start looking at the stock market.”

With programs like Squawk Box on the wide screen, plus the dedicated D’Artagnan Fund streaming ticker, it felt like a real trading floor. “It’s fun for our Xavier students, because they get a chance to teach. For example, last year, one of the eighth graders wanted to buy stock in the Army.”

While trying to buy stock in a branch of the armed forces and field trips to massive fulfillment centers constitute—especially to an eighth grader—the glamorous side of big business, at the end of the school day, it’s becoming comfortable with the working world that’s most important to Hyland.

“We talk about budgeting and looking for a job and what kind of place might hire somebody their age,” he says. “And get the kids interacting with the college kids. We’re trying to get them to think about building a résumé, what sort of things can we do in the next four to five years that’s going to help them in college and with their careers.”

The Office: Niamh O’Leary

Assistant professor of English Niamh (pronounced Niev) O’Leary loves everything Shakespeare. She teaches it, researches it, reads it, studies it, writes about it. And she collects it. A trip to her office uncovers a variety of Shakespeare stuff, such as:

• Skull from the Tower of London gift shop. Hamlet held the skull of Yorick, the court jester he knew as a boy, and philosophized about mortality and living a moral life.

• Bloody Mug from the Globe Theatre gift shop in London. The quote on the mug, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” is from Macbeth.

• Shakespeare figurines—an action figure, a bobblehead and Steampunk Willie, a limited edition figurine made for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s steampunk-style production of Titus Andronicus.

• Map of Shakespeare’s Britain from 1611 published in National Geographic in 1965 includes names of plays printed over the locations where they took place—Henry VI at Yorke, Macbeth at Byrname Wood, Richard III at Bosworth Field.

• Empty wine bottle with “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” on the label. The words refer to the scene in A Winter’s Tale where a bear kills Antigonus. O’Leary performed the scene for actor Kyle MacLachlan, who owns the winery, before realizing he only wanted her to look at his framed Shakespeare picture. So she felt obliged to buy the wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon, which he signed and she drank.

• Poster of Shakespeare quotes with words he coined that are still in use today, like “arch-villain,” “cold-blooded” and “eyeball.”

• ABCs of Shakespeare poster where F stands for “Falstaff.”

• Necklace of a G clef inscribed with the first lines from Twelfth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on.”

• Light switch cover with drawing of Shakespeare on it.

Taking on the World: Duathlon Dude

Buzzbuzzbuzz. Bruce Miller’s alarm sounds. His hand fumbles around until he finds it and shuts it off. It’s 4:30 a.m. At a time when most people simply roll over, Miller rolls out of bed and begins gathering his gear.

It’s Monday, which means he’s on the bike. He pulls on his skin-tight gear, shoes and helmet, and meets up with his cycling buddies for a ride through the suburban streets for an hour and a half.

miller But this isn’t just some casual exercise. Miller is in training. The 1989 MBA graduate is the director of the Xavier Leadership Center by day but an athlete by middle-of-the-night. Miller is a “duathlete,” a lesser-known cousin to the better-publicized triathlete. A duathlete runs for 3.1 miles, rides 12.4 miles, then runs another 3.1 miles. It’s fast and intense. And Miller does it well. How well? World-class well.

In April, he qualified for the Duathlon World Championships by finishing sixth in his 50-54-year age group, which put him on Team USA. This year the World Championships was in Ottawa, Canada, in August. Miller’s goal was to finish in the top 10 among Team USA’s 18 members. Which he did, finishing in 1:05:00, 10th for Team USA and 17th overall.

He was happy with his performance, but he isn’t turning off his alarm just yet. He still plans to train—cycling on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, running on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday—at the same predawn hour. It not only allows him to be at his desk by 8:30 a.m., it also fits his personality, which he says is marked by a desire to achieve. “I have to achieve something every day,” he says. “My endurance training helps.”

Beetle Mania: Eradicating Invasive Bug Species

Biology professor Annie Ray clicks her pen, closes her spiral notebook and snaps the trap shut, feeling satisfied with her catch. She’s not exactly sure what kind of beetles are crawling in the Portland warehouse on this spring morning, but she knows that the ones in her trap will bring her closer to saving the world—parts of it, at least.

When Ray’s not on campus, she’s probably not at home or on vacation, either. In fact, she likes to keep busy on her days off. Ray, who has a doctorate in entomology (that’s the study of bugs), spends her extra time partnering with customs agents and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to understand how invasive insects, specifically the longhorned wood-boring beetle, thrive in foreign habitats. Basically, international pest-control.

Not much is known about the beetles that Ray studies. What scientists do know is that there are an estimated 35,000 species of longhorned wood-boring beetles, and that they’re found on all continents except Antarctica. What scientists don’t know is how the different species of longhorned beetles affect individual ecosystems. That’s where Ray’s research comes into play.

“Invasive insects have huge impacts on ecosystems and land values,” says Ray, citing the Asian longhorn beetle infestation in North America as an example. First spotted in New York City in 1996, the beetle, which is native to Asia, has now spread to states as far away as Illinois and Ohio. Left unmanaged, the infestation could result in more than $650 billion in damages to forestry and landscape, according to a recent report commissioned by the USDA.

Ray’s work begins when the USDA receives a report of a foreign beetle infestation. With the report in hand, she travels to nearby offloading warehouses and sets traps using pheromones, which are chemicals beetles release to attract potential mates. She then records how the beetle populations grow, eat and reproduce in their new habitats. Scientists use her research to compile databases that help them quarantine and eradicate invasive bug populations.

According to Ray, the longhorned wood-boring beetle’s trip abroad starts when goods like auto parts, tiles and furniture are packed into fresh-cut wood crates for overseas shipping. Wood-boring beetles eat, reproduce and burrow in trees, so many of them end up hitching a ride with the wooden crates. When the beetles arrive in the states, they crawl out of their burrows and start looking for a fresh-wood meal in their new habitat.

“The truth is that we just don’t know what we’re up against,” says Ray, after returning home from a trip to Portland. “There isn’t much data that associates larvae and beetles in their adult stages. So when a warehouse worker finds a larva burrowed in a crate, we’re not sure what kind of longhorned beetle it will turn into. I collect DNA samples from the larva for barcoding purposes and identify the types of wood that are likely to house certain species of wood-boring larvae.”

The work is demanding, but for Ray, it’s not all about getting rid of pests: Her time spent outside the classroom also includes research on the conservation of endangered beetle species, like the Valley Elderberry longhorned beetle, a species native to the Central California region.

Similar to her work with pest control, Ray uses phermones to study the endangered beetle populations. And she is the proud owner of 11 pet tarantulas who also reside in a foreign habitat—her office.

Ray, who participates in the biology department’s annual Costa Rica study abroad experience, says she wishes that her students could experience field research with her more than just once a year. Hands-on research, she argues, is necessary for the development of the whole self.

“A liberal arts education makes you a better scientist, but it also makes you a better person as well,” she says. “It’s so nice to watch the students interacting with the outdoors and experiencing the world. They just blossom and turn into different people out there.”

The Office

When associate professor of English Stephen Yandell was in high school, he began collecting Scandinavian shelves for his ever-growing book collection—shelves that have, as it turned out, followed him to college, then grad school and finally to Xavier where they have taken up residence in his Hinkle Hall office. Cleverly arranged to create an arched doorway just inside the main door, the shelves give him the space to display the 1,100-plus volumes he’s collected over the years, which are neatly arranged by categories: literature (think medieval Beowulf, Tolkien and the Canterbury Tales), language (linguistics) and literary criticism.

The draping plants and welcoming gargoyle on the top shelf help create a homey feel. “I want students to know they’re in a welcoming space,” says Yandell, who was voted Teacher of the Year last year by University students. “The doorway gives me more book space but also when the students come in, we will sit together and talk. They can’t sit by the door.”

The Black Brigade By Tyrone Williams

1.

White shopkeepers,

farmers, traders

have assembled of their own accord,

Under one flag

With one sword

But we are not welcome

to defend our home

because our skin

is black.

 

2.

Who are you? What do you want?

My husband is a free man! Leave him be!

Where are you

taking him?

My God! My God! Somebody help us!

 

3.

Don’t sit.

Don’t stand.

We can only

crouch, hunker.

Halfway positions,

halfway men.

Not slaves,

not yet free.

 

4.

Return these men

to the free state

Of Ohio.

Return them to

work and family,

Free to remain

at home or

to return here.

 

 

5.

Cross this river one more time

These men say I’ll get my say-so

They say, Talk to our eyes.

Cross this river, for the last time?

 

6.

We return

on this new morning,

twice as many

strong.

 

Ready to defend

our city and home.

Ready to safeguard

our families and

future. Ready to

believe in unity.

 

7.

Now an army

with one mission,

many of us will follow,

a few command.

we work the front:

cut down trees,

dig pits, build bunkers,

man trenches,

armed only with

picks, axes, shovels.

 

8.

A grey cap

with field glasses

scans the front line,

stops on me.

I stare back.

I want to shout

“Black men

built these forts!”

 

9.

The morning sun

burnt off the last

of the fog.

Not a single grey

cap could be seen.

I kissed the axe

I’d held all night!

Forts and vigilant men

turn the sowers

of division away.

 

10.

We left as men,

Returned as heroes

To doffed hats,

Waving hands.

Cheered by the

colorful crowd at

Fifth and Broadway,

we are citizens

knighted by a

sword not used.

Poetic Justice

Tyrone Williams has lived in Cincinnati for nearly 30 years. It’s his home.But during his three decades here, at least one piece of the city’s storied history eluded him—the story of the Black Brigade, Cincinnati’s free black men who were rounded up during the Civil War and forced into slave labor to protect the city from advancing Confederate troops.

Although a well-published poet, Williams had never created any type of public art. But when the call went out for someone to write a poem about the Black Brigade for a monument that was being created along Cincinnati’s riverfront, Williams decided to step outside of his usual comfort zone. It was, he thought, a perfect fit for him.

Others thought so as well. He was selected to write a 10-verse poem that was etched in stone as a small part of a larger piece of public art honoring the brigade. While notable on its own, what he loved most about the project was, as a poet, he got to work with three other artists in the monument’s creation.

“It takes your ego out of the process,” he says. “You have to work with someone else’s idea and you have to sometimes give up some things. It becomes part of something larger.”

His research helped him imagine the feelings of the 400 men who, in September 1862, were taken from their homes, locked in mule cages overnight and forced across the Ohio River to build fortifications against the Confederates. He imagined the fears of their wives and children, not knowing if their men would come back from Kentucky, where they were at risk of being captured and returned to slavery.

He thought about the joy the men felt when they were rescued by an abolitionist judge-turned-colonel, returned to the city and offered the chance to willingly volunteer. And he imagined the pride they felt when 718 of them showed up the next morning to help defend their city—and their elation when the Confederate troops retreated.

The monument is a series of panels on a wall that consists of statues, bronze plaques and words etched in marble and stone. Williams’ 10 verses fill the spaces between the panels. The wall is embedded into the earth, resembling the fortifications the men built with their hands along eight miles of Kentucky landscape near Fort Mitchell. Shaped like a crescent, it points toward the Ohio River and the Kentucky shore.

The names of all 718 men in the three regiments are engraved along the bottom of the wall. Their flag is engraved beneath a statue of a worried woman and child. Another statue, depicting Judge William Dickson receiving a sword from a brigade member, anchors the end, near the words of Williams’ final poem, which is etched permanently into the stone—and into Cincinnati’s memory.

Mirror Image

On his first day as a gear-cutter at the BorgWarner plant, Kelly Phelps strides up to the cavernous factory wearing Carhartt coveralls, thick leather steel-toed boots and safety helmet pulled close.

It’s 11:00 p.m. on a summer night in June. After four years of college at Ball State University, he’s returned to the Indiana city of New Castle where he grew up. With nowhere in this lower-income industrial community to put his newly earned art degree to use, he’s decided to take a job at the factory, a rusted relic of the dying automobile service industry that has sustained his family since his childhood. With his lunch pail in one hand and work gloves in the other, he looks over at his twin brother, Kyle, and steps inside. Then, everything changes.

The problem isn’t the enormous space, the physical assault from a blast of hot air or the ear-piercing sounds. It’s not even the constant whir and thrum of the machines making parts for the transmissions of Chrysler SUVs that most of the people in the factory will never be able to afford. The problem is the monotony. He’s not ready for eight hours of standing at the same station, doing the same task over and over and over.

Still, work pays the bills. So he pulls on his protective glasses and picks up a blank—a smooth, round steel disc—and locks it into a machine. Then he does it again. And again. The machine cuts the disc into a gear, its edges shaped into perfect prongs. With a gloved hand, he wipes away the steel burrs, sharp little bits of shaved metal. For every 100 discs that go into the machine, he pulls 30 to make sure the measurements are good.

He’s also not ready for the exhaustion of working third shift, coming in when his body is ready for sleep. Nor is he ready for the dangers of working in a big production factory where workers get around on trikes and drive front loaders to the railroad spur to move pallets of steel crates into the shop.

[lightbox link=”http://xavierweb.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/brothers9.jpg”][/lightbox]Most of all, he’s not ready for the anxiety of the men and women who have worked there all their lives and know no other way to make a living. By the summer of 1996, some of the factories in New Castle and Muncie have started downsizing. Some have actually closed and people are losing their jobs. Their fear is tangible. And educational.

A year at BorgWarner becomes a lesson in life for the twins. Their eyes are opened to the reality of the factory life that has sustained their city for more than 100 years. This is where their father went to work every day, as did their friends’ families and practically everyone in town. It’s why their dad pulled on his boots every morning and peeled them off at night, tucking them into the furnace closet. It’s why he was unemployed for at least a year after being laid off from the Chrysler plant in New Castle before finding work at BorgWarner.

It finally becomes clear to them—two young budding artists with four years of college behind them—that this is where they come from, this is who they are. This world of the factory defines them and their community. It also becomes clear to them that they need to tell this story through their art. And they need to do it together.
 

[divider]A life, divided[/divider]

Ten years ago, Kelly and Kyle walked into a tattoo business in Dayton, Ohio. When they were in college, the two had bands with interlocking hooks—an icon of being a twin—tattooed on their wrists. It was small but symbolic.

This time, they were looking for something new. Something different. Something that was not only an expression of their combined individualism, but also something that spoke of their passion for those who spent their lives cutting gears and stamping parts. They decided to have a large spider web woven in ink around their left elbows—a representation, says Kelly, of being caught up in the system, tangled up in the web. Each strand represents individual struggles to overcome personal obstacles.

Five years later they took that message even further, this time by having the words “Working Class” in old English lettering surrounded by a wreath tattooed on their forearms. It was, they say, a more direct way to show the folks back home in New Castle that they may have college degrees and were able to escape the grind, but they haven’t forgotten who they are or where they came from.

“It’s a brand for everyone to see that’s who I am,” Kelly says. “It’s like you wear your politics on your sleeve. This is undeniable. I make no bones about hiding or covering up who I am, from the tattoos down to the clothes we wear, all work clothes. It’s just ingrained in us.”

[lightbox link=”http://xavierweb.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/brothers7.jpg”]brothers7[/lightbox]All their lives, the Phelps brothers have done everything together. Their mother dressed them alike from birth. They attended the same college and graduate programs, choosing the same major and going to work at the same university. Their tattoos are no different.

“He’s the first person I talk to in the morning and the last at night,” Kelly says. “We work exclusively together. We’re the left and right hand, always and forever. We have the same tattoos, same music, same cars, same everything. It’s who we are. We are one person in two different bodies. It would be like tearing half my body away without him.”

Indeed, they admit their twinning behavior is extreme. They wear the same working-class T-shirts, heavy silver rings and neck chains, shave their heads close and have the same light goatees. They each drive a black Jeep Commander, and their houses are only blocks apart in the same neighborhood. The only obvious difference at first is Kyle’s face is slightly fuller than Kelly’s.

Xavier psychology professor Kathleen Hart, herself a twin, says the experience is unique for each set of twins. There is little scientific research about the phenomenon to back up common perceptions about twin behavior, but she says the Phelps brothers probably are more extreme than most twins in their identification with each other.

“It seems as though because of being identical, being a minority and being unique in their community, they cleaved onto each other and really formed a very, very tight bond,” Hart says. ““The fact they are twins and have all those shared experiences makes it easier to create a relationship that is that symbiotic, but it’s something they have created. Given the role that plays in their work and in their art, it sounds like it’s working for them.”

Now, as dual artists, they have a commodity to promote, both for a living and a cause. They started teaching together at the University of Dayton in a shared tenure track position, but in 2003, Kelly took a position at Xavier, so they could each have their own tenure track.

Kelly is popular on campus among students. His enthusiasm for the possibilities that an art degree offers encourages students to be creative in his Xavier studio. Checking on their work on a September afternoon, he comments on the life-sized heads, self-portraits they have created, that are propped at various angles on the workbenches, still soft and gray-toned in the unfired clay stage.

[lightbox link=”http://xavierweb.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/brothers6.jpg”]brothers6[/lightbox]“I love teaching, but I love doing art, too,” he says. “One facilitates the other.”

The brothers credit their parents for developing their love of art. Their father’s ability as a handyman to build anything—including additions to their house—and their mother’s creative talents at upholstering taught them how to work with their hands. They would take toys like GI Joes or Transformers and reconfigure them into something other than intended.

“We were finding art everywhere—seeing dad swing an axe or mom turn a pattern into something. We were always creative,” Kelly says.

Their exposure to creativity paralleled the family’s strong work ethic. When their father got laid off from Chrysler, he did odd jobs until he was hired at BorgWarner. Their mom’s upholsteryjob inspired her to start her own business. The twins watched and learned.

“We had a strong sense of a work ethic, having pride in what you have,” Kelly says. “We convey that through our art.”

At New Castle Chrysler High School, they got into sculpture, the kind of art where you get your hands dirty. Their parents encouraged them but also cautioned them to find something at which they could make a living. “Every factory worker worries about how to make a living. We came from a town where everything is focused on practical things.”

Though being among a small handful of African-American residents in New Castle, the Phelps don’t focus a lot on race issues. But they found it frustrating at Ball State, as in high school, to be the only African-American people in the art department. “We didn’t have a role model,” Kelly says.

Their art showed. Their sculptures were of interesting topics—slavery, “angry black man art” depicting the African-American
experience—but it wasn’t their experience. They hadn’t lived what they were creating.

That all changed in their senior year of college when they entered an art competition and won second and third place. The guy who took first was Bobby Scroggins, an African-American artist and professor at the University of Kentucky. They had never met a black professor, especially in art. He told them they had talent and ought to go to graduate school. They did, after their year at BorgWarner, entering Kentucky in 1997. Scroggins taught them, mentored them and even today, talks to them regularly. “It changed our lives,” Kyle says. “We realized the working class was all around us, and we never paid any attention to it. It was a revelation. Since 1997, our whole body of work has been in this whole working-class theme.”
 

[divider]A people left behind[/divider]

Three framed statues are lined up side by side on a workbench in a small studio in the lower level of Kyle Phelps’ suburban house in Centerville, Ohio. They are, for the most part, complete, but they need some finishing touches.

The two men move around the enclosed space with ease, taking turns dabbing paint onto the sculptured figure placed squarely in the center of each piece against a backdrop of riveted metal. One dabs here, the other dabs there, moving in unison, piece by piece. Each movement complements the other in a kind of rhythm that can only occur among people who have known each other for a very long time.

[lightbox link=”http://xavierweb.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/brothers8.jpg”]brothers8[/lightbox]Sixteen years after their year at BorgWarner, having earned Master of Fine Arts degrees together at the University of Kentucky, Kelly and Kyle Phelps are now professors in ceramics and sculpture—Kelly at Xavier, Kyle at the University of Dayton. They are also accomplished artists who have completed more than 100 pieces, some of which have been purchased by museums, corporations and universities, including Chrysler Corp. and Purdue University, and private individuals, including movie producer Michael Moore, actor Morgan Freeman and musician Bootsy Collins.

They recently completed a commissioned statue of jazz musician Eric Dolphy for Le Moyne College. Their work has been featured in Sculpture Magazine, and they are increasingly getting more showings, such as last summer when they were the invited artists at the 19th annual San Angelo National Ceramic Competition. They submitted several of their most recent works, whose titles reflect the Phelps’ renewed focus on working-class themes. Among them: “News of the Layoff,” “Steel Worker” and “Miss America.”

Scroggins is proud of his former students. “The people I know that have seen their work and their energy and what they have to offer are very, very accepting of what they try to do and who they are,” he says. “They’re involved in a social commentary that a lot of people in our country have ignored. They’re reminding us of the people who got left behind.”

The Phelps brothers’ art tells the story of what happened to their city and the working-class people who lived there—starting with
the layoffs and eventual selling off of the New Castle Chrysler plant to DaimlerChrysler in 2002. What once employed nearly 7,000 people in the 1930s had only 200 workers remaining. The factory is now completely silent, as is BorgWarner.

“When the factories disappeared, the poverty set in,” Kelly says.

The titles of the three pieces on the workbench reflect as much: “The Break” features a factory worker lighting a cigarette. He wears a jump suit and has a lunch pail at his side. “Miss America” features a woman in similar work clothes, a lunch pail in one hand and work gloves in the other, looking down and dejected. The third piece, “John Henry,” is shown holding a sledgehammer.

What’s most noticeable about the people in the pieces is that they are idle. “They’re not working. They’re disheartened. They’ve been let go,” Kelly says. “The point of the piece is they’re no longer viable to anyone’s service. They’re cast off, discarded.”

The “Miss America” piece reflects their recognition that women are part of the working-class workforce, too, and ought to be treated as equals to men. One of their favorite sculptures is “Carlita,” featuring a hotel maid in a headscarf pushing a cart filled with cleaning supplies. The backdrop, as in most of their pieces, is an American flag.

“She’s the hotel worker who cleans the room and then disappears,” he says. “There’s something really dirty about how we treat these people.”

The Phelps brothers start a sculpture by first getting into their car and driving to old factory sites in Indiana and Ohio. The abandoned behemoths are now rusting hulks, partly torn down, partly collapsed. They take pictures and then discreetly collect scrap metal and machine parts. They haul it back to the storage room in Centerville and piece by piece, find ways to incorporate the rusting iron and steel into their art, redefining the original intention of each item.

They clean and heat-treat sections of old corrugated steel and wrap it around wooden frames to create a rugged backdrop for the sculpture that nestles in the center. In some pieces, the steel is shaped to resemble smoke stacks and water towers, and always an American flag. A rusted railroad spike they found onsite is attached to the “John Henry” piece. A pair of real, worn work boots dangles from another.

“Our art now is reflective of our experience in that factory town,” Kelly says. “These factories are just shells of what they used to be. They were these mega-structures, and when you see the space where it doesn’t exist anymore, it’s like a scab or wound or a memory of what once was there. They’re being scraped away as if it never was there.”

Except that their art is archiving that history and, as Kelly says, “capturing the moment before it disappears.”