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