Studio Visit: Kelly and Kyle Phelps, Centerville, Ohio


Just the Facts

Primary Forming Method
Primary Firing Temperature
cone 06-04
Favorite Surface Treatment
oil/acrylic paints, machine oil, stains
Favorite Tools
Kemper 123 trimming tool, dental tools, Macbook Pro
Motown, punk, ska, hardcore, soul, reggae, indie, new wave
more space


Many people have the perception that our studio would be located in some kind of abandoned/converted factory or a forgotten industrial warehouse complex. Nope. Our studio is nestled in the quiet suburban neighborhood of Centerville, Ohio. Our studio is a stark contrast to the gritty blue-collar themed work that so many people familiar with our work have come to expect. The studio is located in a tri-level home where the bottom level serves as the studio workspace. The space is divided into four main rooms: the main production space, a storage and staging (packing and crating) room, bathroom, and a utility space (where a utility sink and additional storage is located, also where work is stored to dry). There is also a small chill space with a large couch, a flat-screen TV, and a fridge. Here we also store all archives from past exhibitions and competitions, museum catalogs, postcards, books, magazines, and articles.

Although, our studio is small compared to many other studios, our production level is high. This relates to our work ethic, which was shaped while working in many industrial plants. We have a kind of assembly line approach, where we work on many (up to four) ceramic figure narratives at the same time. We rotate the work between the two of us. Because we are identical twins and have identical skill sets, we are interchangeable in the sense that nothing produced has a singular authorship. In the studio, we work as one exclusive unit, side-by-side or back-to-back. The small size of the main workspace has a familiar feel of a cell on a factory assembly line.



The production space of the studio consists of a large central workbench where two adjustable 48×24×8-inch relief boards rest along with a large bookshelf that houses reference ceramic/sculpture/anatomy books. We store our reclaimed clay and new boxed clay beneath the central workbench. There is an additional workbench with drawers that we use to store all clay tools, paint/brushes, and hand tools. It is also our computer station. At the back of the studio stands a large tool crib where all power tools, hardware, and safety equipment are stored. Natural light comes through the lower level windows that run the full length of the studio. The windows also provide much needed ventilation, which is important in this small enclosed space.

Because the space is so small, we are forced to work in stages. In the wet stage, the handbuilding/sculpting of the ceramic figures that are to be used in our narratives takes place. During the second stage, the work is whisked off to the utility/storage area for pre-kiln drying. Once dried out, the work heads off to the kiln. During this time, the studio is cleaned/mopped and all clay and clay tools are put away. The work is then fired in an offsite kiln room equipped with two AMACO Excel Select kilns and a Bailey electric kiln with a fume extractor ventilation system. The next stage, framing, is when all of the vignettes/altars are fabricated. After framing is complete, and the fired work is returned to the studio, the surfacing stage for both the frames and ceramic figures begins. The room is then cleaned and organized for the last phase, when we join finished ceramic work with the frame and attach the hanging mechanism. Once the work is completed, it is moved to the staging area and is prepared for shipping and installation.

The space itself can be a bit of challenge. There is no place to have a bad attitude. We’ve learned from long periods of time working together in this small space that you have to really let go of anything negative before you walk through the door. As a collective, we depend on the space and each other for the greater good of the work. Working in close proximity with another person who thinks exactly like you can be like the experience of two kids who constantly fight and bicker (lots of cussing/disagreements/arguments), and push each other’s buttons by saying things like, “Why are you breathing on me?” or “Quit touching me.” The one positive thing about having a shared home studio is the fact that it’s home. We are extremely close as identical twins, and can agree that in spite of some small disagreements, it’s the best thing in the world to get to work with someone who has the same passion and has shared the same journey in life.

We’ve visited a lot of artist studios and have come to the realization that your studio doesn’t have to be equipped with all of the latest and greatest gadgets and equipment. It’s about your passion for art. Through passion comes production. Big things can happen in small spaces. Having a home studio has given us the flexibility to spend time with family, as well as work anytime we desire. As academics (art professors) many days and evenings are consumed with school related activities, so it’s nice not to have to go to another site to produce art before heading home. Typically after teaching classes we both like to spend 3–4 hours in the studio every day or when our wives call us for dinner. It’s funny the neighbors probably think we have some sort of meth lab in the basement due to the strange studio hours we keep. When we are not in the studio making art or teaching, we enjoy spending time with our families. Both of us are married (Maria and Andrea) and have a little girl each (Raya, 2 years old, and Mia, 6 months old). We also have a black lab, Emma, who is 13 years old.

Paying Dues (and Bills)

Our formal training began in 1991 at Ball State University, where we earned BFAs concentrating in sculpture and ceramics in 1996. This was a risky decision for us especially since we came up from a proud blue-collar, working-class background where you were expected to work in the plants, factories, steel mills, foundries, and warehouses that surrounded the community. Not quite sure what to do with our art degrees, we ended up back in a plant alongside our father until 1997 when we were accepted into a graduate MFA program at the University of Kentucky. We had the honor to be taught by ceramics professor Bobby Scroggins until we graduated in 2000. Professor Scroggins personally took us under his wing and inspired and prepared us for the world of art and academia. We were both immediately hired for teaching positions after graduate school. Kyle is a professor and heads both the ceramic and sculpture departments at the University of Dayton. Kelly is a professor and department chair at Xavier University where he oversees the sculpture department.

Research and Inspiration

As far as resources and publications that help inform our work, the usual suspects are always close at hand. We read Ceramics Monthly (of course), Sculpture, American Craft, and Juxtapoz to name a few. This keeps us in the loop of the contemporary art scene, as well as the latest trends, techniques, processes, and opportunities not only for ourselves, but also for our students. Understanding that our work is primarily about the plight of the blue-collar working class, it’s not hard to find stories in the local/national news about plant closings. We travel around the Rust Belt and beyond to collect, archive, and appropriate materials from abandoned factories, mills, and warehouse complexes. These artifacts are then juxtaposed with our hand-crafted ceramic figures to create authentic figurative narratives.

Sometimes the very thing that you’re looking for has always been right in front you. Growing up as young African American artists, we thought we had to focus on making art about race and race-based issues. We were making art about slavery, civil rights, and what we called the “Angry Black Man.” Although those particular issues were and continue to be important to us, they were not our lived experiences. It took us a while to realize that there was a rich working-class heritage that was present in our immediate family as well as our community.


As professors we are fortunate that we don’t have to rely solely on the sales of our art to sustain a way of life for us. We understand that teaching helps facilitate the art making. Making art for ourselves has always been our first priority, and we try to instill that value in our students. If you are passionate about the art you produce, the money will come. There is something about making ceramic art just for the sole purpose of selling and making money that never really sat well for us. Although making money by doing what you are passionate about is great, the sheer love of creating objects motivates us to produce art. Our dad used to call us (before he passed away) with what he thought would be great ideas for money-making projects. Sculptures of famous sports icons such as Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods were often his suggestions rather than the working-class narratives that impacted our lives. Perhaps, he was just too close to the subject to see its value.

The work will find the appropriate audience. We try to market our work to traditional outlets that you would come to expect (art dealers, collectors, museums/galleries) but also try to strike a balance by marketing to factories, union halls, and labor organizations. By marketing like this, we don’t exclude/exploit the working-class people we use as subjects in our work.

Our strategy for marketing our work is simple. We listen to ourselves and stay true to what we believe in. We believe in making a personal connection with the work as well as the potential buyer. A fancy website can only do so much. Neither one of us is an active Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram user. We choose to actively seek out opportunities in person. Attending the NCECA conference every year has helped provide most, if not all, of our opportunities. Live networking at conferences and gallery openings has helped market our work.

Through the years private collectors, major corporations, colleges/universities, and museums have been our major supporters and purchasers of our work. That has only been achieved by active, aggressive exhibiting at the local, regional, and national level. The inclusion in many highly acclaimed national publications such as Ceramics Monthly, Sculpture, and American Craft has helped move our work and create opportunities for us. An eight-page article published in American Craft in 2013, helped move us into the world of gallery representation, and Hooks-Epstein Galleries of Houston, Texas, currently represents our work.



One thing we’ve learned as professional artists and educators is that it’s important to make art that matters. We want our work to touch,  and impact the viewer and always leave them thinking or relating to our work.


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