Phyllis: A Self Portrait Wins Portrait of an Individual at MH Film Fest

by Natalia Osuna from Los Angeles, CA, United States

149152From left to right, Phyllis Thelen and filmmaker, Harris CohenHarris Cohen, with permission

Artist and activist, Phyllis Thelen is the founder of Art Works Downtown, Marin Ballet, and Youth Arts––all organizations that promote service and the arts in San Rafael, CA. The protagonist of Phyllis: A Self Portrait is “a charming dynamo of a woman,” according to filmmaker Harris Cohen, who produced this inspirational documentary short film featuring a driven woman who is passionate about transforming her community.

A 2020 article in the Marin Independent Journal states that filmmaker Harris Cohen originally created the film to be presented at the Mill Valley Film Festival, making it his fifth film to be shown at the festival. Before then, he worked in both the television and film industries.

149154Phyllis' art, captured by videographer Adam NevilleHarris Cohen, with permissionIn 2003, Cohen began to work with Phyllis Thelen when she hired him to do pro bono work for a promotional and fundraising video for her organization, Art Works Downtown. During that time, the two artists connected with each other as they both shared a common purpose: to create positive change in the art world. While being interviewed, Cohen recalled that when this project began, he was 83 years old, wanting to put his energy into use when “bigger than life Phyllis came to mind. She stood out like Hans Roenau had––an ideal profile subject.” Hans Roenau is the protagonist of the filmmaker’s first major feature short film titled Hans.

In the film, one of Phyllis’ daughters, Nancy Thelen Rehkop, says “I love thinking about my mother’s trajectory in art because she never stayed in one place. She continually expanded her ability.” Then, Phyllis herself states, “There’s something about putting your soul into it [one’s art] that people feel when they look at artwork.” Her children describe that 9/11 pushed Phyllis to begin to include political statements in her art. One of her staple pieces is the recreation of the Twin Towers on 9/11 out of newspaper clippings of the coverage of the event.

After that, Phyllis began creating small statues that became sanctuaries for “people to go and feel safe, feel good.” Once folks began showing interest in them, she decided to also create little boats so that people could symbolically use them as vessels to get from one sanctuary to the next. Through these ideas, Phyllis’ art now focuses on providing peace, transformation, and connection.

The Filmmaker, Harris Cohen

When asked what his creative process is like, Cohen described that he takes inspiration from his previous work. In the late 1970s and 1980s, while working with KPIX San Francisco and Group W Westinghouse, he worked on magazine-format evening shows. Cohen recalled two of those, titled “Monks Who Made Chocolate” and “A Family Circus,” which have a special place in his heart, and pushed him to dive deeper into his passion for filmmaking. These then made him realize that what he truly enjoyed most was creating articles on video.

Cohen also shared that what amazed him the most while working with the “dynamo woman” was Phyllis’ ability to pursue a career as a visual artist and found several philanthropist organizations along with her husband—all while raising four children. When asked what he hopes to transmit to his audience with his work, Cohen passionately stated “I, like Phyllis and Hans, hope to use my life experience, to do some good and spread inspiration in the world.” 

To learn more about Phyllis and her art, head to: ​​ 

To watch the film, visit:

Page created on 9/1/2022 11:32:09 PM

Last edited 12/9/2022 4:53:10 PM

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