Sculpting From Life

Farm themes are nothing foreign to most Oklahomans. However, the rural undercurrents of David Phelps’ sculptures come not from the Sooner State, but from Roberts Island, the biggest island in the San Joaquin Delta in northern California.

Agrarian life on Robert’s Island was shadowed by a persistent fear of drought and flood, and Phelps’ younger years were filled with endless tractor rides across prairies stretching to oblivion. These memories inspire some of the main themes imbued into his art, but it doesn’t take experience with tilling fields and milking cows for Phelps’ work to find relevance. His sculptures are popular in New York, Canada, Europe and Australia – among other parts of the world – because his creations transcend the farm life niche and convey emotions that most everyone can find accessible.

“If I can dig down into myself and find something universally human, then I’ve been successful,” he claims.

Phelps came to Oklahoma in 1980 to pursue a master’s degree in sculpting at the University of Oklahoma. During his first two years of college he taught as an assistant in ceramics, but in 1982 he decided he wasn’t making progress in school or in his artistic development. Frustrated, he visited a professor who advised him to empty his workspace and start fresh. Phelps filled four dumpsters with discarded materials and then, with a blank slate, he realized which direction his life’s work should take.

“It was like a light bulb went off in my head,” he said. “I started thinking about memories and feelings from my childhood. What I attached to was the fear of floods and periods of drought.”

Dry, cracked mud seemed to provide a natural link between these two extremes, and Phelps set out to recreate the imagery in his art. He started by building up a thin layer of clay over his sculptures and then letting it set to create a similar aesthetic. Even some of his lifelike works carry the look of baked, parched earth for an appearance that is bizarre and unexpected, yet somehow makes sense.

Many of his figures are fashioned into a concave negative, producing an image that appears normal when viewed from the front, but creates the illusion of the figure turning toward the observer when viewed from the back. For these works of art, he uses live models that he covers with plaster strips until he forms a mold. Wax is brushed into the mold as the first step in creating the finished image in bronze.

In 1988, at the age of 32, Phelps sold his first big piece in Knoxville, Tennessee. He has since sold pieces in Maryland, Florida and many other states. Some of his most public works include a five-piece series of large desert animals he created for McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. This series boasts a man-sized rabbit, a giant scorpion and a winding rattlesnake.

OU president David Boren noticed a small version of Phelps’ iconic “Pastoral Dreamer,” which depicts a lounging man who appears to have sunk into the earth, at an exhibit in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Boren fell in love with the sculpture and commissioned a larger version for the OU campus. Now a limited edition series, seven “Pastoral Dreamers” can be found scattered across the country and a smaller one is slated to appear soon in downtown Edmond.

“‘Pastoral Dreamer’ has been a really successful piece,” Phelps states. “It has something about it that is not only viscerally attractive but also transcends my personal connection with it. People seem to react to it universally.”

Recently, Phelps began incorporating renditions of specific artifacts from his past into his sculptures, like an ancient typewriter, an antique telephone and a snaggletooth, age-stained human skull found by his grandfather before Phelps was born.

The original typewriter was one of the few things Phelps recovered from his past on a recent trip back to Robert’s Island, and the telephone is a reminder of the eight-party line shared by Phelps’ family and neighboring farms. When the phone rang, everyone would answer and then sort out whom the call was meant for. These symbols of Phelps’ past are important to him, and are made significant to others through his craftsmanship.

With his work in high demand, it’s become necessary to find a larger area for him to work in. Phelps and his wife Patty, co-director of Westminster Middle School, recently purchased a 9,000-square-foot building near the intersection of Classen and Sheridan for use as a new workspace. They hope to move all of his gear to the building by November.

“I’m at the age where I’m aware of my mortality and I see how I need to plan for my physical and mental changes,” he says. Now merely in his early 50s, Phelps is far from winding down. Though he already has an impressive catalogue to his name, he has the creativity and sharpness of an artist at the start of his career, and in his office, he keeps a folder bursting with volumes of notes and ideas for future projects.

A two-month exhibition of Phelps’ work just ended at Norman’s Mainsite Gallery, and he will be the subject of a one-man show at the Hahn Ross Gallery in Santa Fe in August. For more information, visit www.phelpssculpture.com.

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