NCECA Exhibits: Kyle and Kelly Phelps: Working Class Narratives

Standard Ceramic’s NCECA’s Exhibitions


When the 52nd Annual Conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts convenes in Pittsburgh this coming March 14 – 17, Standard Ceramic will transform its facilities into several galleries that will feature exhibitions by noted ceramic artists.  In addition, eight universities will be featured in “pop-up” shipping container galleries on the property.  Standard Ceramic is located in Carnegie, a nearby community just fifteen minutes from the downtown conference location.  Conference attendees will be able to travel to the site via charter buses and make their way through the galleries, viewing the art and touring Standard’s clay-making and glaze operations, its ClayPlace@Standard gallery space, Ceramic Supply Pittsburgh, and the company’s offices.  Local musicians will perform throughout the Friday opening party, with food and drink provided.


The 2018 conference theme – Crosscurrents: Clay and Culture – will explore sources of inspiration that influence and impact work in ceramics today.  The Standard exhibitions will address this theme.  Over the next several months, we will feature stories about these artists and their shows here on our website.  Visit us often to read about this exciting event.


NCECA Exhibits: Kyle and Kelly Phelps: Working Class Narratives


The ceramic arts, along with most visual arts, tend to be a solitary pursuit – one artist giving form to a personal creative idea.  Collaboration is not the hallmark of potters.  For artists Kelly and Kyle Phelps, twin brothers whose lifelong alliance has carried them along parallel paths, working independently makes no sense.  These Ohio artists will bring their representations of industrial workers to Standard Ceramic’s production facility-turned art gallery for the NCECA Exhibits.

The Phelps brothers’ interest in America’s working-class heritage has its origins in their Indiana childhood.  Kelly says, “Our father was the stereotypical company man.  He worked at the Firestone plant in New Castle,Indiana for twenty years.  That plant closed, and he moved on to Chrysler for another two decades.  He drove a Chrysler vehicle.  Trains carrying Chrysler products passed by our backyard five times a day.”  The twins recall their father constantly “tinkering’ with his hands.  They inhabited a world where people worked with their hands and solved problems with their hands.  Their mother operated a home-based upholstery business.


As children, Kelly and Kyle shared their parent’s fascination with the things you can do with your hands.  They recall, “We were always reconfiguring our toys.  We would have an idea and then go about making it.”  This creative activity extended into art materials, especially clay.  Kelly says, “Clay is the perfect material for creating something magical.  I always tell my students that clay is the cheapest form of magic you’ll ever meet.” 


The two brothers, who were so inseparable that they posed for their school picture in the same frame, went on to college together at Ball State University, each earning a B.F.A.  Together, they went on to earn M.F.A.s in Ceramics and Sculpture at the University of Kentucky in 2000.  They pursued careers in academia in 2001, initially at the University of Dayton.  Kyle had an interview for a position there and Kelly decided to go along for a “practice run” for when he had his own interview.  “They would ask Kyle a question, and I’d chime in, saying, ‘We know how to do that!’  By the time the interview was over, they created another position and hired us both!” Kyle has remained at University of Dayton in Dayton, OH, where he is now a Full Professor in the Department of Art and Design, while Kelly took a position at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2003, where he is now a Full Professor and Chair of the Art Department.  They share a studio in Kyle’s suburban Centerville home and work jointly on their pieces.  Their lives are melded, both driving the same model, year, and color of Jeeps.  They continue to dress the same.  They function as one unit and their art is created by that unit.


For many years, their objective has been to do research and produce work about the plight of the blue-collar worker in the United States.  They continue to explore this subject and have created a collection of narrative pieces that incorporate salvaged material from industrial sites.  They explain: “There are derelict industrial sites all over the Midwest – coal mines, steel mills, textile mills.  We take remains from these industrial sites and juxtapose them into narrative sculptures that represent the industries from which the artifacts come.”  The pieces depict workers at their skills in their environments and at leisure.  Kyle says, “Although our work recalls our childhood and parents, it goes beyond that.  It acknowledges all workers, people who used their hands, both in skilled and unskilled ways, to create a world that is now gone.”


The NCECA exhibit will be aptly placed in Standard’s production facility.  The pallets of boxed clay that normally fill the space will be left in place, serving as pedestals for the Phelps works.  Kelly says, “It is so appropriate that these pieces will be shown in a “working class” environment – a gritty, messy warehouse where work is done.”  Visitors will be reminded of the essential work of the human hand, not only in working with clay but in doing the work that benefits our world.


Read more stories about Kyle and Kelly Phelps: