Blue Collar Art Connects With Northeast Ohio's Industrial Past
A ceramic art show at the Canton Museum of Art evokes bitter memories of shuttered plants and lost jobs.
It also celebrates the courage of those who lived through the decline of manufacturing throughout the Midwest.
“Blue Collar” is the work of two sculptors who grew up in a small Indiana factory town.
Kelly Phelps chairs the art department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, and Kyle Phelps is on the arts faculty at the University of Dayton.
They are identical twins.
“We embrace it fully,” says Kelly Phelps.
They also embrace their working-class roots.
It was Chrysler’s town
The Phelps twins grew up in New Castle, Ind., where all their family members and practically everyone they knew worked at the Chrysler plant.
“Everybody drove Chrysler products. The high school was even named after the factory, New Castle Chrysler High. When the factory fell and literally was scraped off the face of the earth, the city took Chrysler off the high school name," says Kelly.
Adds Kyle, “So it’s very alien for us to go back home and to experience that it’s no longer there.”
Collaborators from childhood
The twins share a studio, work collaboratively and engrave both sets of initials on their strikingly realistic sculptures.
From a very early age, they were making things together, including their own toys.
“We had materials. They weren’t necessarily art materials, but we actually made art early on,” says Kelly.
“Dad brought home building materials and things," says Kyle. “Two-by-fours, or we’d have, a pail of nails. There was always something to tinker around with.”
Workers in everyday settings
Today, starting with sketches and clay forms, they create ceramic statuettes of factory workers punching time
clocks, toting lunch buckets and pushing brooms.
Included are broken, torn, and rusty artifacts.
“We try to keep it as authentic as possible. We had a chance to go through a factory and collect the old corrugated sheet metal, and bits and pieces.”
One of the sculptures is constructed in an antique railroad- tie stake box. It features the African-American folk hero John Henry, the “steel-drivin’” man.
“That’s an actual railroad stake,” says Kelly, “archiving that sense of history with the ceramic form.”
Several of the figures have packs of Kools tucked into rolled up shirtsleeves or Marlboros dangling from their lips.
“It was one of the one pleasures that factory workers had,” says Kyle.
“One of the things that we were kind of really interested in, “says Kelly, “is just showing the non-heroic side. It’s just the everyday, mundane, a person tying up their shoes or taking a smoke break.”
A religious quality
The Phelps frame grizzled, grimy faces and weary, work-worn bodies in what look like altars or shrines.
They say their family wasn’t very religious.
“My parents they worked, religiously. Work kind of being this religious experience, the church was in a sense the factory.”
The Phelps family didn’t go to art galleries or museums.
“Growing up in a little, small factory town. Art really wasn’t on anyone’s radar.”
But they think they drew unconscious inspiration for the low-relief sculptural pedestals they fashion today while slouching in church pews.
“Kyle and I we were bored to tears with the sermon, but we were enamored by what we saw on the walls, very beautiful, very sculptural.”
Depressing days at the plant
Inspiration also came from working at the Chrysler plant during high school and after college. Kelly says they both hated it.
“It was depressing. The machine cycle non-stop and the banging and clanging, and how dark it was inside and really dangerous. And just the mundane repetitive tasks every day.”
Like punching the clock.
One of the sculptures on display in Canton is titled “Time Clock.”
“The time clock was that one place that you wanted to be at the end of the day,” says Kyle.
“And it was the dreaded place to be at the beginning of the shift,” says Kelly. “We were always eager to get out as soon as we heard that factory whistle blow.”
To relieve the tedium, they had their sketchbooks.
“During shift breaks we’d always doodle and sketch, says Kyle.
“There’s still sketches that we revert back to from working in the factory," adds Kelly.
They’d always honored their parent’s hard work.
“But as young kids, we had no concept of what really went on until we were thrown into the mix of working in the factory,” says Kelly, “and it gave us deep respect for our families and neighbors and just working folks in
general to see what they go through.”
But he says it took years before they showed that respect in their art.
“Because we’re African-Americans, we thought our place was to make angry-black-man art.”
They both studied art in college, but never dreamed of making a living at it.
“If your father worked in the plant,” says Kelly, “you were going to work in the plant.”
A mentor re-directed their focus
Kelly heading the art department in Cincinnati and Kyle being on the faculty in Dayton -- it was inconceivable while they were in high school.
“Because at the time,” says Kyle, “we’d never seen a black teacher or African-American art professor.”
That changed, says Kelly, after graduation from Ball State University.
“We were already working back in the plant. We were competing in an art competition, and we came across a professor, Bobby Scroggins from the University of Kentucky.”
“That really motivated us," says Kyle, “that there was somebody out there doing it that looked like us.”
Scroggins encouraged them to be authentic, to make their art reflect their working-class background.
But that took time.
“Sometimes you have to go decades,” says Kelly, “until you find out who you are.”
They say they want to expose their art to the people that inspired it, so they don’t confine it to museums.
“There’s an intimidation factor that most working-class people feel,” says Kyle. “I know we felt that way. So we’ll go to union halls. We’ll take our work to community centers.”
Welcomed back in New Castle
Kelly says it means a lot to them to be able to show the sculptures back in their hometown.
“A lot of people kind of walk around and they look at it, and they say, ‘Hey this reminds me of my uncle when he worked on the assembly line.’ For us that’s where our work kind of is successful, because it touches a broader group of people.”
It’s touching many in Canton, according to the art museum’s Executive Director Max Barton.
“The focus of the work: The displaced worker, the forgotten worker in a manufacturing blue-collar industrial setting. It speaks to the Canton community with all the manufacturing facilities that we have in the area and have had in the area.”
A display of articles and mementoes of Canton’s industrial past accompanies the “Blue Collar” exhibition.
It remains on view at the Canton Museum of Art through March 6th