I. Images For A Better World: Kelly and Kyle PHELPS, Visual Artists
Identical twin brothers Kelly and Kyle Phelps are Associate Professors at private Catholic universities in Ohio. Kelly is an Associate Professor and Chair at Xavier University (Cincinnati, OH) where he oversees the sculpture department; Kyle is an Associate Professor at University Dayton (Dayton, OH) where he is the head of the ceramic department.
The Phelps grew up in New Castle, Indiana, a working middle class small factory town, with bi-racial parents. Their father and sister were factory workers for their entire professional lives, as were the majority of the residents of the town. They, too, after college, worked for a while as gear cutters at Borg Warner Gear in Muncie, Indiana, and had the opportunity to actually “walk in the shoes” of a factory worker.
Before entering the world of academia, becoming professors, getting tenure, and most recently being granted sabbatical, the Phelps then experienced firsthand the struggles of the working class. Affected by family members and friends who worked in various manufacturing plants, steel mills and foundries, these everyday people became their working class heroes who inspired over a decade of their blue collar working class art. Their work has since been an ongoing advocacy for these workers, for the factory laborer, for the common man and woman made invisible in our society, and for their plight and struggle. The Phelps identified with them as they were their parents, their neighbors, and to a certain extent themselves. They addressed their poor, dangerous and stressful work conditions in factories, the hidden sweat behind every part they produced, the threat of globalization and technology for their livelihood, the devastating effect of closing factories for all their families who relied on them from father to son, and the feeling of fear, abandonment and sudden joblessness of the many…
Their newer work, in addition, explores the subject of race relations, of immigration, and of the general working class. Their “Invisible People” series, for instance, focuses on immigration and labor issues in the United States.
The Phelps work collaboratively to create their artwork; they share a studio in Centerville (OH). They also share numerous grants, regional and national exhibitions, and commissions. Notable private collectors of their work include film director Michael Moore and actor Morgan Freeman. Their work has had major reviews in, among others, the acclaimed Sculpture Magazine, Ceramics Monthly, and American Craft Magazine.
For a number of years the Phelps have produced work that incorporates both their own hand-crafted art (clay/resin casts) juxtaposed with found and site specific objects. They have combined gears, corrugated metal, scrap-machined parts, etc. with their modeled ceramic/resin cast figures to create a visual narrative composition about the blue-collar experience. Combining site specific factory found objects with their own hand-crafted art gives their work an authentic sense of place and time, the found objects becoming witnesses and historical artifacts of a certain time. Not infrequently, they incorporate elements which would have been soot-covered or soaked in cutting machine oils, and thus would emit the distinctive odor commonly found in an automotive factory. As a result the Phelps’ pieces would trigger not only the visual, but also other senses of their viewers.
The Worker’s Altar, a wall sculpture influenced by religious triptychs, is composed of 3 vertical compartments, the right and left representing Adam and Eve as struggling factory workers, and the center, two hands holding a gear with various tools underneath. The hands, casted from a real worker’s hands, allude to those of God trying to protect the factory and its workers. The Phelps meant the piece as an altar dedicated to the Blue Collar Working Class.
Mary, The Light and Workers of Plant 4, mixed media sculptures, incorporate found objects from a factory site. Mary’s ceramic figure is painted with oil paints and posed in a classical statue posture reminiscent of a traditional Virgin Mary. The Light’s ceramic seated female figure, also painted with oil paints, is presented in a religious resting posture looking up at the clerestory windows high above her head. The male and female heads of Workers of Plant 4 are also oil painted ceramic. Even though not overtly religious themselves, the Phelps are highly influenced by traditional religious, mainly Christian, iconography. They also recognize that many factory workers believe religiously in and have a deeply rooted pride for the factory and the American made products it produces; and that the workers assemble together like a religious congregation, the factory acting like their church, and their production work like a routine act of praying.
Us and them, a wall sculpture part of Michael Moore’s art collection, contrasts the conditions of factory workers to those of upper level administrators. Using for background a piece of roofing material recovered from an old Buick plant, it depicts on its left, in painted clay, a group of workers dressed in greasy dirty clothes, separated, on its right, from a group of individuals in suits and ties, holding briefcases, cigars, coffee cups… It confronts visually proletariat workers with their superiors, the “haves and have nots” in our society where only a few are in control of the masses. It underlines at the same time divisiveness in factories, administrators being removed from the daily reality of workers, from the issues they face, disconnected as if in a different world.
In The Meek, two painted ceramic female figures represent distraught workers worrying about their future. The sculpture conveys the sense of disparity, loss and fear workers experience when the plant where they worked most of their lives, and which represented their livelihood, closed its doors for good, here as a result of NAFTA and globalization politics.
In Off the Cross, a crucified Jesus in factory garb is accompanied by two other factory workers, all three painted ceramic figures. The cross is corrugated steel recovered from a factory site. The piece, meant literally as a ‘working class crucifixion’, is about workers who believed in the factory as their religion, devoted all their life to it, yet found themselves victimized, abandoned by it. Conceiving this piece, the Phelps were also interested in the narrative quality of the Stations of the Cross and in the actual “disposition of Christ”.
Miss America represents a lone standing painted ceramic female figure. The Phelps created it as a commentary on the role many women played in the Blue Collar Working Class. Even though taking on the “traditional” role of bread winner, these women are, up to this day, paid significantly less than their male counterparts. The piece easily applies to the Phelps’ sister who worked for many years in the heat treat dangerous area of the factory, and thus the figure represents all blue collar women in such factory environments.
Carlita, Jesse and The Dream are all mixed media sculptures; each incorporates found objects, an American dirty flag and a standing ceramic figure. Carlita’s figure is that of an older Hispanic female custodian, pausing with her cleaning cart; Jesse’s, that of an older African American male custodian preparing to mop, and The Dream’s also that of an older African American male custodian preparing to sweep up remnants from a political celebration, here discarded pictures of President Obama. The Phelps wanted all three figures to represent the “invisible people” who make up our working class, contribute to society and yet are not fairly compensated, recognized or respected. The dirty American flag included in each sculpture alludes, in their view, to the dirty truth of the American dream. The Dream sculpture is also an indirect reflection on President Obama’s presidency.
The Patriot and Dennis Osborne are mixed media sculptures incorporating found objects, an American dirty flag and a ceramic figure. They both deal with war and its effect on simple citizens. The Patriot represents a standing Homeless Veteran, one who had faithfully served his country but who had become an outcast from society when his services were no longer needed. Dennis Osborne is the figure of a seated US combat soldier, the Ohio soldier who is crying at the death of his unit members. The Phelps meant it also as a symbol of all those who have served in Iraq, America’s longest war. In their mind, the military has become the new working class factory, where poor, Latinos and Blacks enlist just to make a living. They feel that many combat troops deployed to Iraq enlisted primarily because of a failing economy, that many of the reservists never intended to serve overseas, and that they were often forced into multiple deployments and denied troop rotations. The Phelps here again resort to a dirty American flag as a reference to the dirty truth they perceive regarding the American dream.
II. Words For A Better World: Karen ARNETT, Literary Artist
Karen Arnett grew up in the suburbs of south Florida in the 1960s and 70s, raised by parents from two different worlds, a Holocaust survivor and an Appalachian, both of whom denied their heritage, attempting to be vanilla Americans and raise their children in the American Dream. Thus she learned to have a critical eye for her culture and always carried an outsider’s perspective. Arnett has worked as a weather forecaster, a freight pilot, an environmental activist, with excursions into market gardening and writing. She ended up knowing a little bit about a lot of different things, but always enjoyed most wandering in the woods and listening to nature. She is currently retired, which keeps her busier than ever.
The gravitational force that holds Arnett in place, around which she orbits, is the wisdom of the earth. Her work choices turned out to be about observing nature – forecasting weather and flying as a freight pilot were great vantage points for seeing the earth from a bigger perspective. But she also likes the microcosm. She adopted this statement from the great socio-biologist E.O. Wilson as a kind of maxim: “A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.” Observing nature gives her great sustenance, from knowing that she is part of a rich and vastly intelligent web of life, and that the creatures around her are subjects, like her, who have the same basic wish as hers to survive and thrive. Most of her poetry comes from that same place and it is her experience, and her belief, that this connection brings out our highest self, our innate goodness as humans.
Arnett does not call herself a poet; she simply is moved, by what she observes, to write. She appreciates what the poet Li-Young Lee said about poetry: “My sense is that poetry is the deepest and highest form of yoga that we can practice.”
- The Christian Science Monitor ran a story in 2008 about a Syrian-born German citizen, Mohamed Shehadeh, who was wrongly denied, just for being a Muslim of Arab origin, entry into the US while on his way to his Massachusetts summer home of 30 years. He was detained in inhumane conditions, and then deported. The short sightedness of the Department of Homeland Security made Arnett angry and sad, and she couldn’t help but writing something, hence the poem “Mohamed’s Return.” Arnett found the line about the grapevines enduringly beautiful, and included it as a poignant counter to the mindless destructiveness of the “war on terror” that makes any Muslim a target.
I want to see the tables turned,
George Bush stopped at the border
incoming, stripped of his cowboy boots and jeans,
his counterfeit dignity.
Made to kneel and bend, protesting as latex fingers probe
God damn, I’m an American
words that fall on deaf ears as he’s pushed
behind bars, where there’s one toilet for two dozen
and no privacy.
steps from the plane
as he has for years
to his beloved American soil.
Half a lifetime of summers spent here,
long enough to grow deep roots.
He wants to see the grapevines
he planted last summer, and the Yankee friend who
gave them, saying your friendship
is worth 10,000 grapevines to me.
A perfect evening – the light articulates each
blade, each leaf, flowers of every imaginable
color drenched in golden light. Sparrow and finch
chirp thickly from the trees and a pair of doves
flies over, wingtips singing their gentle song.
Here is home, where roots sink deep
and Mohammed will be once again warmed
by the secure blanket of belonging.
Here is home.
Five hundred detentions per day, in this land where we are free
to ignore the truth, home of the brave and patriotic
Mohamed’s deportation followed three days in a concrete cell,
his only crime the fact of a Muslim birth.
The German Foreign Ministry
continues to inquire why
their good citizen was barred.
His wife can’t sleep, and keeps the doors locked.
- The shoe throwing incident in 2008, where an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at then President George W. Bush during a Baghdad press conference, sparked many people’s imaginations. The poem “Imagine the Shoes” is where Arnett’s imagination took her. While this incident seemed to Americans to be a crazily creative way of protesting, in many parts of the world, however, showing the sole of one’s shoe is a common form of protest or insult. Arnett would also like, thanks to her poem, to remember what al-Zaidi, the shoe thrower, a journalist, said in his defense at his trial: “While he [Bush] was talking I was looking at all his achievements in my mind. More than a million killed, the destruction and humiliation of mosques, violations against Iraqi women, attacking Iraqis every day and every hour. A whole people are saddened because of his policy, and he was talking with a smile on his face – and he was joking with the prime minister and saying he was going to have dinner with him after the press conference. Believe me, I didn’t see anything around me except Bush. I was blind to anything else. I felt the blood of the innocent people bleeding from beneath his feet and he was smiling in that way. And then he was going to have a dinner, after he destroyed one million martyrs, after he destroyed the country. So I reacted to this feeling by throwing my shoes. I couldn’t stop the reaction inside me. It was spontaneous.”
Imagine the Shoes
Today we witnessed our president duck
as shoes whistled past his head.
We owe the thrower our gratitude, for imagine
if it caught on, next year’s headlines: “Shoe fight
in school blackens eye” or
“Innocent bystander bruised in
drive-by shoe throwing”. Kids trade in
their guns for wingtips, high tops.
Metal detectors are scrapped, airport
security personnel file for unemployment,
emergency rooms take on
the deserted look of late night laundrymats,
police take off their body armor,
the Olympics introduce a whole new sport,
and kids stop killing kids for their Air Jordans
since even kids know better than to throw away
good money. Our economy returns to solvency
as war becomes an exercise in thrift:
weapons of mass destruction give way
to the $20 casual loafer, that must be thrown
from a range so close that soldiers see themselves
reflected in their enemy’s eyes.
Even world leaders begin to hurl
their shoes at each other in staterooms
to defuse international tensions, settle territorial disputes.
Streets will be named for this hero:
Muntadhar al-Zaidi Causeway,
and schools, and airports. He receives
a peace medal for the courage
to hurl his anger at Goliath wrapped
only in a piece of shoe leather,
after which George W. Bush magnanimously
insists he be released from the prison
where, even now, interrogators are sending
their carefully aimed shoes flying
into his brave face.
- Arnett attended Quaker meeting at Community Friends Meeting for a couple of years. The worship is called “unprogrammed,” and people simply sit together in silence, listening collectively for something mysterious, possibly called spirit. There is something known as a “gathered meeting”, in which a sudden sense of union comes over the group, and Arnett thinks that one does not have to hold a notion of God in order to appreciate the power of the Friends meeting. Her poem “The Wreck” is a reflection on such an experience.
Gathered in silence, chairs concentric-circled
the meeting sat, tight furled bud,
each one of us focused
on our certainty of something
bigger, some with head bowed, some
listening according to their fashion –
turning the leaves of a book,
penning an entry onto blank pages
but silent together, waiting.
Then the silence opened, parting
like petals eager for the light,
and someone spoke: a woman,
weepy, recounting the teaching of
an early Friend who’d likened the soul
to a wreck. The words came as a shock:
Friends believe no soul unworthy.
An explanation came: not as a ship
smashed against great rocks, foundering,
great shame at the helm – not like that,
but rather as a bud which, perfectly wrapped,
is wrecked by flowering. Silence descended
again, and in it we strove to open to this
truth which fell, simply, into
our stilled hands resting
in settled laps, as a wisp of gossamer
might dislodge and waft so lightly down
from a hummingbird hovering
over the collective blossom of us all
opening our face to the sky.
- Ants come and go seasonally, like water that freezes and thaws. It is exciting to watch them shape-shift and be both particles and waves. Arnett, who hates to kill them, usually sees a lot of them streaming around her house, especially her kitchen.
It begins as a trickle, black tendrils
seeping across surfaces: kitchen counter,
bathroom floor, around the edges of the house.
Movement returns to what was clean,
spring thaw after months lying frozen
inside walls, out of sight, quiescent.
Rivulets strengthen. I step over, sweep around,
allow this harbinger of spring to flow
but here and there droplets splash
away from the stream: pinned by
the boulder of a coffee mug, flattened by
the mountain of my body lumbering across
the ceramic plains. Each life holds
a universe, as a single drop of water mirrors
a world within the dome of blue sky.
The calendar has turned a page. March
is the order of the day, the seasons
march ahead, and the ants obey.
- When Arnett woke up on her 50th birthday she was genuinely and unexpectedly surprised that she had made it so far, and excited at her milestone. She looked at all the familiar stuff with fresh eyes, at least until the magic of her birthday wore off. On her wall, she had a small postcard portrait of Zora Neale Hurston, the American folklorist, anthropologist, and author, in which Hurston looks as if she’s seen all the pain of the world, and is infinitely weary and compassionate. Kwan Yin is the goddess of compassion. Arnett’s poem “Old World, New” speaks of that day.
Old World, New
I’m 50, I whisper to the sleeping cat
sprawled and snoring on my favorite chair.
I’m 50, I breathe to the room around me,
and all the things sit silent as before:
the albums on their shelves,
the shells and stones resigned
to life on a table instead of weathering
the winds and tides. From one wall,
Zora Neale knowingly stares
past me, never meeting my eye.
She died today, half a century ago, the day I
emerged eager for all that life held. She is my
American Kwan Yin, forever accepting
all that pain she sees beyond my left shoulder.
Her eyes are sad. She doesn’t look away.
My father beams from his high school photograph
on the opposite wall. His genial, movie star smile
scrunches up his eyes and travels
across his smooth forehead.
He always cringed at that picture:
I look like a sissy, he’d say, grimace
and turn away. Today I feel that smile was
just for me. It’s as if he’d been waiting
all these years just for this moment:
reaching out from his still green and hopeful age
to gift me with his young happiness.
I’ll take them both, I say
to the picture of two eggs resting,
smooth and speckled, in a bowl,
to the air of this room suddenly clear
and new, as if I’m breathing it
for the first time.
- Interesting that the vulture, the bird which eats only carrion also soars with the most grace of any bird. Arnett loves to watch these particular birds catch thermals and gain altitude quickly, or cross the entire sky without a single flap of their wings. They see everything from on high and seem usually to be on a mission of some sort. Watching them and writing her poem “Vultures” dedicated to them was an opportunity for Arnett to remember her own mortality.
What made me look up at that precise moment,
to see those silent forms sail by? First two,
then three, and then four black winged sentries
appeared over the ridge of my house, aligned like
the keel of a ship cutting through impassive blue.
The sun was not positioned to send their cool shadows
shivering across my skin. Something drew me to attention
and I stood rapt, watching them pass, as if Death itself
were passing, black draped procession such as
our histories are made of: the train across the prairie,
the funeral motorcade, creeping at mournful pace.
I watched them cruise westward in command of the sky,
now abreast, now in fingertip formation, wings fixed
outward in dihedral, shaping the air, effortless,
and felt myself suddenly small, I and my tribe:
the terrestrial, the landbound, all of us moving toward
a final stillness that calls the great wings down.
I felt a wish, when my time would come, to be taken by these
who do their charnel job with such grace. I am small
but seen, watched over, and the scraps of my body will be
carried aloft, prayer flags soaring and
shining in the untethered sky.