By Barbara J. Euser
In conjunction with the Writer's Center of Marin
Growing up in
The three sisters walked
home from school carrying their books in their arms. The white gravel on the
road glittered against the dark green leaves of the citrus grove. On both sides
of the road, the trees belonged to the Thelen family’s citrus ranch.
Suddenly the youngest
sister, Phyllis, dropped her books and ran over to the base of a tree. Nimbly,
she climbed up and reached out to pull an orange from a branch.
“Want one?” she called
and tossed it to her oldest sister.
“One for you?”
“Yeah, me too,” her
middle sister replied.
She tossed another orange.
Phyllis remained perched
in the cool shade of the branches while she ate her orange. Juice ran down her
arms. Her sisters had continued walking. Phyllis
pulled another orange from the branch, stuffed it in her pocket, climbed down
and headed home.
As soon as she got home,
Phyllis checked on her art project. She always had at least one art project in
progress. Sometimes she sketched or painted. Lately she had been working with
white clay. Carefully, she picked up the small white clay horse. As she did, one
of its legs fell off. She would have to patch it again. As she mixed water with
the clay, she wondered if she would ever get her horse to hold together. There
must be something she didn’t know about working with clay. Someday, she
promised herself, she would learn how to do it right.
“Phyllis, your dad needs
you!” her mother called to her. Phyllis scrambled into her jeans and a shirt
and went outside. Her dad was waiting by the barn.
"Phyllis, I need to
spread some mulch in the grove. If you drive the truck real slow, I’ll stand
in back and toss out the mulch as we go.
jumped up into the driver’s seat. She was ten years old. For more than a year,
she had been driving a tractor and a truck along the roads of the citrus ranch.
Her sisters were older, but neither of them seemed much inclined to work
outside on the ranch. But Phyllis loved being outdoors and helping her dad.
When she was little, her
parents gave her a tool set. Phyllis learned how to use a hammer and a saw. She
learned how to build and how to repair things. One of her favorite pastimes was
to build boats out of pieces of scrap and float them down the irrigation flume.
She would run alongside the flowing
water and watch their progress, then scoop them out at the end.
As Phyllis grew up on her
family’s citrus ranch, she became sure of one thing: she was capable of doing
whatever she chose to do.
Off to College and
When Phyllis was old
enough to go to college, she wanted to study drama. She wanted to become an actress. Stephens College in
Columbia, Missouri, an all women’s college, had a well-known drama instructor,
Maude Adams. However, before long,
Phyllis realized that her greatest interest was in the visual arts, drawing,
painting and sculpting. After two years at Stephens, Phyllis continued her
education, majoring in fine arts, at Connecticut College for Women in New
After graduation in 1948,
Phyllis and several of her college friends determined to travel for three months
in Europe. World War II had ended and there was cheap passage available on
converted troop ships. Phyllis and twelve of her friends arranged to buy
bicycles at the Raleigh factory in England. They took a troop ship to London and
went to pick up their bicycles. At the Raleigh factory they were met by British
news reporters: as the first group of American girls to purchase bicycles at the
factory, they were news. The reporters created a newsreel about Phyllis and her
friends that was shown in theaters before movies began. As they bicycled through
England and Holland, people had seen them on the newsreel and knew who they
were. Local people invited Phyllis and her friends into their homes and treated
The girls carried all
their gear in canvas musette bags strapped to their bikes. They kept their
clothes to an absolute minimum. However, they each had to carry a skirt
specifically for riding through Belgium. At that time, there were very strict
dress codes about women wearing shorts or pants. In Belgium they could have been
fined for bicycling wearing pants. For two months, the bicyclists continued
through Belgium, France and Italy, cycling between 50 and 60 miles each day.
They stayed at youth hostels at night. In the evenings, everyone staying at the
hostel was assigned a job. Phyllis and her friends were inevitably assigned to
washing the pots and pans after dinner. Europeans had the impression that rich
Americans didn’t know how to work. After
cycling over 1500 miles, the girls sold their bicycles in Italy.
For the third month of
their trip to Europe, the girls split up, planning to meet again in Paris before
returning home. Phyllis had learned that the European Parliamentary Union would
be meeting in Interlaken, Switzerland during that time. She volunteered to work
at the meeting -- the only American volunteer. She was assigned as an assistant
to the British delegation. She worked for the British delegation interpreting
questions from American newsmen whose accents the British could not understand.
This was the first meeting of what evolved into the European Union. “It
was a truly historic event, but I had no idea of its importance at the time,”
When she returned to
California, Phyllis took a job with the United World Federalists (UWF),
an organization devoted to strengthening the work of the United Nations.
As the California state student director, Phyllis arranged speaking
engagements on college campuses, helped form new chapters of the group, and
organized a car caravan of members traveling to Washington, DC with petitions
supporting a strengthened UN. She
was promoted to national student director of the UWF and spent a year working in
New York City. While she was the
California state student director of UWF, Phyllis met Max Thelen. He also worked
for the UWF and was a speaker for UWF events.
Phyllis’ travels in
Europe had given her a marketable skill. Not many recent college graduates had
that kind of travel experience. She next found a job with the California
Automobile Association’s Foreign Travel Department. She was able to advise
people on trips they were planning to take, based on her own experience.
As travel resumed and Europe recovered from World War II, Phyllis made
many more trips to Europe on familiarization tours to learn about the services
available to tourists.
Marriage and Family
In 1952, she married Max
Thelen, Jr. Phyllis had met Max when they both worked for the United World
Federalists. They had four children, two boys and two girls. While her children
were young, Phyllis studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute.
She continued to work in oils, but soon discovered that oil paints were
not practical to have in a house with small children. So she focused instead on
working with pastels. And, once again, she began sculpting in clay.
Phyllis included her
children in her artwork. She
observed that if art materials were made available to children, they naturally
began to work with them and create art. They weren’t afraid to try, and once
they tried to create something, they were successful. Phyllis became aware that
the opportunity to create art should be extended to all children.
Association and Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium
In 1957, the Thelen family
moved from San Francisco to Marin County. Phyllis’ young daughters
wanted to study ballet. She enrolled them in Leona Norman’s Marin
Ballet program. The Marin Ballet
needed support from parents and others in the community who were interested in
ballet. Phyllis worked with others to found the Marin Ballet Association.
At that time, there was no
place for the young members of the Marin Ballet to perform.
The only local theater was at a school: a raised stage and flat seating
area. Phyllis envisioned a professional quality auditorium where performances by
local groups as well as professional groups could be given. She talked to other
people who began to share her vision.
An Action Committee was
set up to promote the auditorium. When bids to construct the Veteran’s
Memorial Auditorium at the Marin Center came in too high and the County
Supervisors backed away from the project, Phyllis rallied with others to
convince them to get more bids. The result was an affordable bid and final
construction of the Auditorium.
Youth in Arts
Once her children entered
school, Phyllis became very involved in the Parent Teacher
Association. She began to work at
promoting art in the public schools her children attended. She met many people
in the community. Phyllis was
especially concerned about making art available
to children throughout the public school system.
Where could children find
inspiration for their own creative efforts?
Many children had never
had the opportunity to see a live ballet performance or hear a symphony
orchestra play. Phyllis had a vision of providing a chance for children in
public schools to attend special performances of live dance and theater and
music. Pulling together a group of non-profit organizations including Marin
Youth Symphony, the performing arts program at Dixie School, Marin Ballet and
others, Phyllis co-founded an organization called Youth in Arts. Initially, the
program provided busses for school children to attend performances of music and
dance at the Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium. Performances were given by local
groups including the Marin Ballet and the Marin Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Over the years it has
grown to include many more programs including artists working in the schools and
performances by professional groups. Each year, Youth in Arts sponsors a popular
fund-raising event, the Italian Street Painting Festival in San Rafael. Drawing
in bright-colored chalk on the pavement, young and old artists create temporary
works of art for the public to enjoy.
Phyllis discovered that
she was very good at developing a vision for a project. She also realized she
needed others to help bring the vision into reality. She learned how to bring
groups with a common interest together and inspire them to work together to
accomplish a goal. She realized how much strength comes from combined effort.
“I discovered that
putting together an organization is as exciting and satisfying as creating a
work of art,” Phyllis says. Using collaborative techniques, she created one
community organization after another using this approach. Bringing together all
the artists’ non-profit groups in the county, she co-founded the Marin Arts
Council. She co-founded the Dance through Time Association, the Masque Unit of
Junior Theater, and Art Works Downtown, Inc., in addition to the Marin Ballet
Association and Youth in Arts.
continued to develop her own work as an artist. She had joined the Marin Artists
Society when she and her family first move to Marin. At that time, she painted
in oils. She was very successful in selling her paintings. “In fact,”
Phyllis says, “I sold them all. I decided to turn to silkscreen printing so
that I could keep one print of each of my pieces for myself.”
Keeping At It
Phyllis’ work has always
required keeping at it, that is, perseverance.
It is a trait she says she
learned from her father, “When I would come up with an idea for a project at
home, my father used to say, ‘When I went down that road there was a locked
gate at the end of it. But when you
go down it, the gate may be open.’ He taught me that if something doesn’t
work out the first time you try, it might work out later. Also, you may have to
try a different approach to get there.”
Phyllis first experience
purchasing a building for the arts was with the Marin Ballet Association. The
Marin Ballet needed a home. Phyllis learned that the Marist Fathers Seminary,
adjoining Dominican University, was for sale.
But the property was too large for the Marin
Ballet. Working with other
groups, including a church and a tennis club, they acquired the property.
Phyllis says, “My husband Max was extremely important in putting the package
together.” She discovered that property ownership was one way for an arts
organization to generate income in order to support itself.
Commission and Art Works Downtown
In 1990, Phyllis decided
to retire from her many positions in art organizations and learn more about San
Rafael, her home of more than forty-three years. At that time, there were a
number of empty storefronts in downtown San Rafael. Phyllis convinced the
Cultural Affairs Commission that these empty spaces could provide a showcase for
local artists, at the same time improving the appearance of downtown.
In the process of placing
art works in storefronts, Phyllis began to explore the historic Gordon’s Opera
House on Fourth Street. This led to her envision a space where artists could
rent studios and teach and where some could also live. At first, Art Works
Downtown leased the spaces from the owner. Phyllis’ vision was to buy
Gordon’s Opera House and turn it
into the Downtown Art Center.
When advisors said Art
Works Downtown, Inc. couldn’t raise $2,800,000 to buy the building, Phyllis
convinced them to try. She raised one third of the required equity herself. Now
the 40,000 square foot building provides 30 artist studios, 17 affordable
apartments, two exhibition spaces, two multi-use rooms and retail shops and
Art from Scrap
Phyllis has continued to
develop her own art. She has worked in many different media over the years. When
she received the Women’s Hall of Fame award, she described her current project
as building boats out of scrap art materials. “I loved building boats when I
was a little girl. I guess I have come full circle,” she observed.
Find a Need
For over forty years,
Phyllis Thelen volunteered her time and effort to make art accessible to the
people of Marin County. From dance to visual arts, from drama to music, she has
worked to develop the environment that enables creative activity. She recalled
the motto of the owner of a cement company, “He used to say ‘Find a need and
fill it!’ I’ve thought about that comment many times as I’ve found myself
involved in one project after another. I’ve tried to do that.”
Phyllis Thelen has succeeded.