In Marin County, Phyllis Thelen is best known as one of the most successful supporters of arts, having formed or helped finance organizations such as Marin Ballet, Youth In Arts and Art Works Downtown.
Through it all, for over 70 years, Thelen herself was and continues to be an accomplished and celebrated visual artist with hundreds of works in several artistic mediums to her name. Many of these art pieces will be on display at Art Works Downtown for the new retrospective exhibit, “Phyllis Thelen: Coming Full Circle,” which opens with a reception on Friday, Jan. 10 and features an Artist Talk fundraiser on Friday, Jan. 31.
Born in the small railroad-crossing town of Colton, CA, in 1926, Thelen spent her youth making art, though she never thought a career would come of it. “In my day you were supposed to not put your time into things that weren’t going to earn you a living,” she says.
After convincing her father to let her study art in college, Thelen began to sell silkscreens, prints and woodblock works.
“I found that anything creative was satisfying to me; the whole thing is in the process,” Thelen says. “Letting your creative spirit go; it takes you out of yourself and what’s going on in the world and puts you in a different place. For me, that’s really irresistible.”
When Thelen moved to Marin in 1958, she found the county in need of creative arts foundations and began her work in philanthropy and art development work. “I found as much creative satisfaction in building organizations,” she says.
Art Works Downtown is one of Thelen’s greatest achievements, and the former Gordon’s Opera House on Fourth Street has anchored the art scene for over 20 years as an affordable studio, housing and exhibit space.
“Phyllis convinced the city of San Rafael to put her artwork in some of the vacant storefronts on Fourth Street to make it look inviting,” says Art Works Downtown Executive Director Elisabeth Setten. “At that time it was a bit of a new idea for downtowns to include the arts as a way for community development. She saw the potential.”
Now, Art Works Downtown is an anchor of the Downtown San Rafael Arts District, one of the 14 communities that received a grant from the state to serve as California’s first state-designated Cultural Districts.
In the last decade, Thelen retired from her role as an arts supporter, and is once again a full-time artist. This month’s title for the retrospective, “Coming Full Circle,” is not only a nod to that change in her life, but also because it will display Thelen’s progress as an artist, from the leaf boats she made as a child, to her provocative environmental and political works and her recently re-worked prints and other pieces now transformed into quilts and scrolls.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to look back at Phyllis’s work throughout the last few decades and see an artist who makes a commitment not only to arts centers but to the art,” Setten says. “It shows the impact she’s had over many years in the community.”