The Oarsman was David Phelps’ first commission. Phelps received his MFA from the University of Oklahoma in 1984, won a regional NEA Fellowship in Sculpture in 1985, and was awarded a six month residency at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Arts in Industry program in 1987. The Kohler program was a great experience for Phelps and gave him the opportunity to add sculptures created in vitreous china and cast iron to his portfolio.

Late in 1987 Triad Development Co. of Knoxville, Tennessee sent out a call for qualifications for a sculpture project. Phelps (along with 300+ other artists) applied for the project and made the short list. Triad vice president Dan Culp championed Phelps’ work and he won the commission.

The Oarsman is installed in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee in an open plaza on the corner of Church & Gay Street. It has become a favorite landmark for the community.

When I got out of Graduate School, my sculpture professor Ken Little encouraged me to apply for public art commissions. I applied for a lot of projects but didn’t start making the short lists until after my stint at Kohler. Before Kohler my portfolio consisted entirely of sculptures created in mixed media. After Kohler my portfolio demonstrated that I had the ability to create artwork in permanent, long lasting materials. I think this made a difference in how the selection committees perceived the artwork.
— -David Phelps