Ohio twins’ clay commentary on race and the working class closes Saturday | PostIndependent.com

Ohio twins’ clay commentary on race and the working class closes Saturday

Phelps twins gallery “Race, Class, & the Blue Collar,” takes final bow at Carbondale Clay Center

“David and Goliath” by Kyle and Kelly Phelps on display at the Carbondale Clay Center on Aug. 25, 2021.
Rich Allen/Post Independent

A laborer sitting on a barrel, jeans torn, face worn and dirty, staring passively into the distance, coffee mug in hand. Two hands presenting a gear over a worn, blue oil can. A white police officer clashing with a Black protester in front of an American flag with a red “Make America Great Again” in the foreground.

These and five similar clay works from identical twin brothers Kelly and Kyle Phelps have been on display in the exhibit “Race, Class, & the Blue Collar,” at the Carbondale Arts Center since July 2 as part of the gallery’s initiative to drive diverse conversations, gallery manager Matt Eames said.

“Our mission of the gallery was to start to have a diverse and inclusive conversation about art but also about social activism,” Eames said.

The Ohio-based duo are both art professors, Kyle at University of Dayton and Kelly at Xavier University, where he is also chair of the art department. They grew up the sons of the blue-collar factory industry in Indiana, drawing inspiration from the working class around them as it began its collapse as they aged. They both contribute to every piece.

“The Break” by Kyle and Kelly Phelps on display at the Carbondale Clay Center on Aug. 25, 2021.
Rich Allen/Post Independent

Their works serve as a looking glass not only into the factory worker life but snapshots into race relations and class dynamics, as well.

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Not many of these struggles directly pertain to Carbondale or the surrounding area, as Eames admitted, but such shows can help foster necessary dialogue about race and social justice throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.

“I think that’s one of the most important things art does,” Eames said. “We’ve continued to try to push any of our regular shows, or even any of our future shows, to continue to just think of other ways that are not a traditional, ceramic pottery conversation.”

The initial effort to get the show in 2018 simply fell through, and the second attempt in 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After the Phelps brothers began to garner publicity, the Clay Center honed in on them to drive conversations.

Beyond their imagery and invocations, the Phelps brothers draw on a viewer’s other senses and add depth through found objects. One display, a worker on his smoke break, has a half-empty pack of Marlboro 100’s over his head. Another of a welder has gloves and protective wear draped around the piece’s frame.

The Phelps twins working in their studio in Centerville, Ohio.

These items, invoking smell, memory or another sense, help add familiarity to the pieces, even in a place like Carbondale, where the factory lifestyle was never as prevalent. Even then, the brothers say that the work takes different forms in the eyes of the observer and their experiences.

“It’s really just about that blue-collar experience that we knew of around our town and around our region and the Rust Belt,” Kelly Phelps said. “Then we started to notice that our work was becoming more universal and transcend that first, initial concept of blue-collar. It was still blue-collar but it started to take on different meanings.”

The twins drew on their own factory, assembly-line experiences to drive their initial concept, but it also drove their process. The assembly-line co-dependence and sense of the whole rather than the individual bled into their work.

“We were working side-by-side or back-to-back and brought that into our studio,” Kelly Phelps said. “It’s like a well-oiled machine where we know what we’re doing is for the benefit of the piece. … It becomes like this human machine in many ways.”

The Phelps brothers are not yet in Colorado and will make the drive this weekend for the closing reception on Saturday. They’ll host an artist talk that evening, in addition to a pair of workshops on Saturday and Sunday, which have both sold out already. Then, the twins will be jurors of the Clay Center’s “The Narrative Figure,” its 15th annual exhibition inviting contemporary artists nationally, or sometimes internationally, to submit pieces. The works have already been submitted, and the featured 25-30 will be on exhibition at the gallery from Sept. 4-25.

More information about the Clay Center and gallery is available on its website, CarbondaleClay.org.

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