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Faculty Spotlight: Jonathan Gibson, Associate Professor, Art

Historically, Cincinnati’s artistic temperament usually hovers between a fetching bit of Rookwood pottery and a Charlie Harper print. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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Night Visions

After she retired from teaching art in 2003, Darlene Yeager-Torre developed an interest that’s become a second career as an artist using long-exposure photography and the targeted use of light.

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Educating Youth…and All That Jazz

Kathy Wade is a jazz icon. For proof, you need look no further than the logo created for the Crown Jewels of Jazz Festival. The highly stylized chanteuse bears a striking resemblance to her.

“Everyone tells me that, but only the designer knows for sure.”

This also is one diva with advanced education—a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in art administration. “I’ve been singing since I was 4 years old. I always sang. It is nice to have a talent. It’s better to have some degrees.”

And to put those degrees to use. Which she does. In 1992, Wade combined her passions for the arts, education and community development by co-founding Learning Through Art, a non-profit using art as a means of creating community engagement and understanding. That serves as her day-to-day vocation.

Learn about Learning Through Art
Learn about the Crown Jewels of Jazz Festival

She also helped launch the Crown Jewels of Jazz Festival, a two-day outdoor festival in Cincinnati celebrating the history, legacy and joy of jazz—including a jazz camp for high schoolers organized through Learning Through Art. That serves as the showcase for the talent that helped lift her into the spotlight—her voice.

When Wade first launched the festival in 1996, it was a one-night-only, black-tie, sit-down dinner cabaret featuring vocal luminaries the likes of Rosemary Clooney, Eartha Kit, Nancy Wilson, Shirley Horn and others. In the past few years, though, the festival itself has undergone an impressive metamorphesis, evolving into a two-day, multi-venue music festival. Wade sees this as part of her mission not only to keep jazz alive, but also to thrive.

“In growing anything, you have to keep the audience growing.”

For Wade, jazz and education produce a parallel passion. As CEO of Learning Through Art she has helped to produce Art Books Alive for Kids, a nationally recognized performing arts literacy program. Proceeds from the festival help fund these programs while promoting a “global jazz village for literacy.”

 So while the “crown jewels” evolve with the times, Wade’s devotion to jazz and education remains fundamental. “For me, in the evolution of music, jazz will always influence the mainstream. It’s America’s classical music.”

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The Office: Marsha Karagheusian

Like an afterthought, Marsha Karagheusian’s office is tucked into a corner of the rambling, crowded ceramics studio in the bowels of the Cohen Center.

It’s not very big. The shelves overflow with things she uses today as well as things she hasn’t touched in years, such as the Kodak carousels holding slides of art she once showed her students.

Collectively, it’s all a reflection of her 31 years at Xavier tinged by a love of art, sculpture, ceramics—and her students. Individually, it’s:

• Bas-relief ceramic sculpture of a nude woman lying on a deserted plain with skulls and bones and, in the background, volcanic mountains. This particular piece of Karagheusian’s art has been featured in several art books, as well as admitted to gallery showings including at the N.A.W.A. Gallery in New York City.

• Finished objects by her students, such as a large vessel with wavy sides in muted blues and greens, and another of two reddish pots resting in a wooden frame. One of these students is now a high school art teacher in Kentucky.

• A box of clay teapot handles made to demonstrate to her students but repurposed into napkin rings that are yet to be glazed.

• Items from nature—rosy quartz crystal, pink conch shells, white sea coral and gray animal bones—because “artists have always looked to nature from the beginning of time.”

• Unglazed orange-pink clay teapots, pitchers, mugs and bowls used to demonstrate the different forms of ceramic sculpture—flat slabs of clay to be shaped by hand, coils for the potter’s wheel, or delicately thin pinch pots that dry to the consistency of fragile egg shells.

• A wooden elephant in bright colors of blue, red, green and yellow with white tusks that came from Mexico as an example of how to use native country art to teach elementary-age students.

• Tools of the trade hanging by the door where she can handily grab what she needs to teach or work on her art: brushes for glazing, a hammer, a hacksaw, wire cutters, needle-nose pliers, screwdrivers and rubber gloves.

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The Fabric of Her Life

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In case you missed the October 2013 issue of The Crafts Report—

or are not staying current with the calico dog-eat-dog world of retail craft art—the magazine’s annual cover contest is over and the results are in.

The winner? A nationally known gourd artist.

And while there was no cover for second place, the magazine noted, “A special mention goes to our first runner-up Pamela Mattei for a great showing.” Mattei, a 2004 art graduate, was a gracious runner-up to the champion, whom she says is “pretty much the Picasso of gourds.” But when it comes to her own art, specifically scarves, Mattei means business.

As founder and self-appointed CEO of her one-person company, DyeSigns By Pamela, she promotes herself as possessing an “eye-catching sense of color, big dreams and
unrelenting determination.” And she’s absolutely right. Her lusciously hand-dyed scarves are so eye-catching they’re sold at art galleries as well as boutiques and gift shops.

Fabrics, sewing and textiles have been a part of Mattei’s fiber almost from the beginning. When most girls became boy-crazy, she was sew-crazy, stitching together pillows and aprons. “I was in middle school when I got my first serger [sewing machine] for Christmas.” So by the time she arrived at Xavier, she could sew circles around her class.

“I was told I could take a fiber course all eight semesters and that’s exactly what I did,”
she says.

She even got a head start, taking a fabric dyeing summer workshop before her freshman year. Mattei enhanced her degree with a business minor, seasoned it with graphic and web design classes and voila, an art-repreneur was born.

Last fall she turned her focus on the magazine cover contest where votes for favorite works were registered on Facebook by clicking “like” on that image. Mattei put together such a strong social media campaign in an effort to garner the most votes that “I was threatened with having my account shut down or suspended from Facebook and Twitter on multiple occasions,” she says. “I was doing so much campaigning they thought I was spamming.”

With the magazine cover past, the next step for DyeSigns By Pamela is celebrating its 10th year in business by expanding its product lines and offering products in all 50 states—which now stands at 35 and counting. So if you’re in Eagle River, Alaska, stop in at the Artworks Gallery and pick up a nice scarf.

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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.”

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Trucks and Trash

Monet gained fame with water lilies, Warhol with soup cans. Rachel Maxi is making a splash in the Seattle art scene by painting, of all things, dumpsters.

Not actually painting dumpsters, but crafting elegant oil-on-canvas creations of the rusty, greasy, smelly containers complete with Hefty SteelSaks peering over the lid. They are her water lilies. And if you’re wondering if a dumpster could be worthy of such attention, one critic notes that, “In Maxi’s hands, they have a seductively warm visual appeal.”
There’s only one problem.

“I really don’t want to be known as the artist who paints dumpsters,” says the 1988 fine arts major.

Umm. It may be too late. Her 2002 painting, “Green Dumpster,” which is now in the collection of the City of Seattle, started her on this unusual motif. She later chose to continue them as a “unifying theme” for her work, a theme that seems to strike a chord with the critics. A later painting, “Big White Rusty,” was described as “the glory of the show” in a 2010 Seattle Painter’s Show at the influential G. Gibson Gallery.

Lest you think she has painted herself into a conceptual corner, Maxi describes her work as a “diary of the mundane” and “is interested in the landscape of everyday, contemporary life,” which includes images of sprinklers, swimming pools, empty parking lots and old pickup trucks.

It all began, of course, in the most mundane of ways. “I was the youngest of seven children,” she says, “so my mom would give me crayons and paper to keep me busy. She told me a friend of hers saw me drawing and asked if I wanted to be an artist one day. Mom said I looked up and told her, ‘I already am an artist.’ ”

So where does Maxi go from here? Oysters—featured in sumptuous tabletop still-lifes inspired by 16th century Flemish painters. And though oysters, like dumpsters, may be an acquired taste, when brought to the canvas through Maxi’s consummate skills, they are sure to be irresistible.

View more of Rachael Maxi’s art at her blog.

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Putting the Tee in Art

It was a young entrepreneur’s dream. Logan Wallace, a 2003 communication arts major, just started designing and selling T-shirts when, at a wedding in 2006, he met a bridesmaid who directed the MTV show “The Big 10.”

In-between the top 10 music videos, the show featured interesting guests and small-business owners. Wallace showed her some of his T-shirts. She told him to get in touch.

Months later Wallace was on the set of “The Big 10,” sporting one of his first creations and talking about his new company, Alternative Motive. He brought a big red Santa bag stuffed with T-shirts for everyone on the show. “I love T-shirts,” he told viewers. “Who doesn’t?”

Six years later, Wallace remembers the day well. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” he says. “It’s what any entrepreneur would love to have.” Wallace was just getting started then, and his inventory was limited to three or four styles, including one called Randomosity—“probably the lamest shirt I ever designed,” he admits. His designs have improved, though, and MTV called him back in 2009. This time they wanted T-shirts to include in SWAG bags at their Woodie Awards ceremony.

Wallace took the long road to the T-shirt business. After college he moved to San Francisco to sell wine. But pushing pinots wasn’t his passion, and in 2004 he returned to Cincinnati, where his wife, Christie Reinshagen—a 2000 art graduate—opened a clothing boutique. Wallace decided to put his art to use and start a business of his own.

“I’d always liked T-shirts, and I’d always liked drawing,” Wallace says. “But the one thing I didn’t like about art is how expensive it is to buy.” Printing art on a comfortable T-shirt, he thought, would make it affordable and transportable. “It’s moving art,” he says. “And it creates a conversation.” All he has to do is “let the cotton speak.”

Wallace’s most popular design depicts the state of Ohio in a series of large white dots. One red dot, in the lower left corner, represents Cincinnati. “People seem to like it,” he says. “It’s simple, yet abstract enough to be cool.”

It’s also easily adapted to other states and cities. Its offshoot label, City-State Tees, features similar designs for Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Hawaii, Alaska, Chicago, Indianapolis and more. One shirt promotes Xavier basketball. And another pictures the state of Kentucky asking Ohio and Indiana for a three-way. (A chili innuendo, we hope.) The designs aren’t limited to shirts, either. Wallace also sells hoodies, onesies, jackets, hats, umbrellas, laptop cases, blankets, tote bags—even doggy tees.

Nowadays Wallace keeps the business running online while also being a full-time dad. The joy of seeing someone wearing one of his shirts outstrips any satisfaction he found in the wine business. “That’s better than selling thousands and thousands of dollars of wine for someone else,” he says. “I’m doing it on my own, in my own way.”

Wallace’s business taps into the emotion people feel toward the place where they live. “Everybody thinks their city is the best city ever,” he says. Now they can wear that pride on their sleeves.

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Brotherly Love of Art

Professor of art Kelly Phelps and his brother, Kyle, like to say that they work together in creating their art like one person in two different bodies. Currently the twins are exhibiting a new collection of their collaborative work, “God…Steel and a Wasted Dream.” The 20-piece exhibit focuses on their speciality: race relations and the blue-collar, Midwest factory life. The two grew up among the factories of New Castle, Ind. Their father was a factory worker, and they both worked in the factories as they earned their undergradute degrees from Ball State University. They collect much of the material used in their art from old factories and then enhance the rusty, greasy, dirt-covered pieces of metal with ceramic pieces. Kelly teaches sculpture and ceramics at Xavier; Kyle teaches ceramics at the University of Dayton. Together their work has appeared in more than 110 regional, national and international exhibitions. They also share more than 130 publications. And they have more than 75 commissioned pieces, including a life-sized statue of jazz great Eric Dolphy at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.

 

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