Fresh from Ball State University with bachelor’s degrees in hand in 1996, UD professor Kyle Phelps and his twin brother, Kelly Phelps, envisioned a promising future for themselves as artists.
Instead, they found themselves unemployed, and returned to their hometown of New Castle, Ind., to work at the auto factory where their father had toiled for decades.
That summer at the now-closed Chrysler plant became one of the defining moments of their future careers as artists and teachers. They gained respect and a greater understanding for the workers, like their father, who depended on the manufacturing industry for their livelihoods for much of the 20th century. During work breaks, the twins drew images of the workers, sketches that would form the basis of their multi-dimensional clay sculptures depicting life in working-class America.
The pieces also depict the emotional depths workers experience when the factories, the longtime heart and soul of the community, shut down.
“Once the heart dies, it decimates the whole city,” Kyle Phelps said.
After receiving master of fine arts degrees at the University of Kentucky, the brothers became professors at UD. Kyle is an associate professor who heads the ceramics section of UD’s visual arts department, while Kelly later took a position at Xavier, where he’s now associate professor and acting chair of the art department.
They’ve been featured in more than 160 publications, and the current issue of American Craft magazine is the latest publication to feature the Phelps’ work. Their sculptures have been featured in more than 115 exhibitions around the world and they’ve completed more than 75 commissioned works.