provocative art reflects African-American issues and images in a universal framework
by Tom Phelps
is an artist, one of the most imaginative in Cincinnati.Yet he
hardly conforms to any preconceived image you might have of someone who creates art.
has refined his
art by studying on his
own all his
life, not through formal education.
delivered mail for more than 30 years. · He's been a grass-roots activist, for social causes and for the arts.
a self-proclaimed "junker," creating provocative art from objects he
finds at flea markets, antique shops and curbs on trash night -- broken baby dolls and old photos, pieces of fabric, African artifacts and Christian icons, animal bones and furniture.
doesn't care that the art he
creates is not traditionally pretty or marketable.
an African American.
Being an African-American visual artist in a town like Cincinnati is not a common thing.Phelps
isn't the only one, but you'll learn a lot about issues important to black Cincinnatians by spending a few hours visiting with him. Phelps
is a warm, talkative man who frequently punctuates his
conversation with his
laughs and smiles easily. He
is slim and compact, but his
intensity has a very physical dimension.His
triangular face features gentle brown eyes above high cheekbones and a goatee that's going white.He
always wears a hat -- an African kufi some days, a soft canvas cap on others.
is passionate about his
A born artist Phelps
grew up in Cincinnati's West End, an intriguing stew of blacks, Jews, Asians and Appalachians during the 1940s and 1950s.He
always knew he
was a little different from others, because he
felt so strongly about art.
"I've been an artist ever since I can remember," he
didn't learn to be an artist."I've been an artist all my life, consciously," he
As a youth, he
enjoyed drawing -- he
still has some marvelously detailed sketches in spiral-bound notebooks drawn with a ball-point pen -- and carving.He
shows with pride a work that looks a bit like a tall, thin African mask.It dates from around 1960; he
carved it from a piece of burned wood he
found in his
interest in objects began during his
grandfather lived in Chicago.Visiting was a treat, because he
could explore the city's big, wide alleys.
doesn't own much of his
early work, which was stored in an old house, and the owners cleaned it out when they decided to sell.But he
still has one piece, a work accepted for the Art Museum's biannual competition in 1966.It's a long photograph of a line of soldiers, perhaps infantry from World War I. He
painted an image of a serpent over and around the soldiers.From a distance, "Snake in the Grass" looks like just that -- a fat, striped snake.Close up, you realize the snake's striped markings are people.
Creativity has never been in short supply for Phelps
, but he
was not much inspired by other artists.The most profound influences in his
youth were teachers: his
junior high art instructor, Georgia Beasley -- "I call Miss Beasley my mother," he
says with sincere respect and love -- and his
art teacher at Taft High
, Antonio Blackburn.
Photo By Jymi BoldenTom Phelps
at the Arts Consortium
"Whatever we did, Tom
was doing it extra time," Beasley says.
...Beasley helped Phelps and other promising students by obtaining scholarships through the Corbett Foundation to attend the Ohio Mechanics Institute at the old Ohio College of Applied Science.
spent some time in a night-school program learning about drafting, but he
never pursued the commercial side of art.
From the beginning, creative art classes most appealed to him.At first, he
did what his
teachers taught him to do, learning the basics.In high school he
began to explore printmaking and three-dimensional construction.Field trips to the Art Museum
gave him his
first exposure to historic artists.Those trips influenced his
early work, which reflected European-based art.
was not playing a role.An artist was what he
In fact, being an artist in Cincinnati's African-American community was not seen as a "career."Most so-called contemporary "mainstream" artists have some higher education or training.Being an artist might be an unorthodox career, but it's an acceptably bohemian life for some. Phelps
says making a living as an artist is a mainstream concept.
"You go to school so you get the training and the background to become a professional artist, someone who lives from the art he's
Being a professional artist and having a career focused in art was never an option for Phelps
"Higher education was a rare thing for most of us," he
For the next 31 years, until retiring in 1997, Phelps
was a letter carrier.
It was a means to an end, a good job with a steady income and benefits.And it enabled him to pursue freely the creation of the art he
cared about.It also took him through Cincinnati neighborhoods where he
sometimes found objects that became his
Photo By Jymi BoldenTom Phelps
Issues of race did not thwart Phelps' artistic drive.Growing up in the West End at mid-century, he
saw never much discrimination.
"This was a real nice spot," he
was sensitive to the world around him.
"I did a lot of drawing from my own sense of pain and experience," he
It's a boxlike structure, topped with a baby doll's head and outstretched arms, which Phelps'
painted and lacquered.
Being an African-American artist in the 1960s, while working a full-time job, could be an isolated existence, Phelps
"We were disconnected from the mainstream of artists," he
says, noting that, with very few exceptions, art galleries in Cincinnati did not cater to black artists.
It was there Phelps
met other artists of color, people interested in reflecting their culture through their art.But visual artists remained a small population among African Americans.
"In our community, performing arts are what most people lean toward and interact with on a more active basis: music, theater and so on," he
says."Those are their expressions of creativity, rather than visual." He
suggests that this might be a long-term by-product of slave owners who prohibited slaves from creating art.
"You couldn't use images the masters could not understand," he
chose to be an artist on his
not concerned about selling his
"Trying to get into the mainstream, that's a whole 'nother thing," he
The NeoAncestralists (L-R: Ken Leslie, Tom Phelps
and Jimi Jones) from a Weston Gallery promotional postcard
has become profoundly self-educated in his
own racial history -- he's
descended from Southern blacks, with some Native American ancestry -- and in art related to that lineage.While he
is interested in visiting areas where Africans have settled and mingled with other races, he
has not traveled broadly.
"I have hardly been out of Cincinnati," he
reading and conversation have helped him know his
knows most African Americans have not undertaken that exploration, and he
art as opening some doors.
"Our own community had to understand what we are doing," he
says."We're going to give you images that come from our African heritage, that's mixed with our American experience." He
likes to cite the wisdom of James Baldwin: "If you reject your history, you don't have any present."
"You have to accept your past," Phelps
says firmly, "and deal with it, with that pain, and put yourself through it."
Over the years, Phelps
has been more concerned with creating his
art than finding a market for it.That meant he
had less need for galleries as an outlet for his
enjoyed working with like-minded artists, and in the late 1980s he
joined with several friends to create the NeoAncestralists.Phelps
is the group's spiritual center; his partners are Jimi Jones and Ken Leslie.
"We feel that, s