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Xavier Magazine | April 24, 2014

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By France Griggs Sloat

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.

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.
 

A life, divided

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.”

brothers7All 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.

brothers6“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.”
 

A people left behind

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.

brothers8Sixteen 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.”

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