This month’s West Village Original is WestView’s former Creative Director Stephanie Phelan, a neighborhood resident for 33 years. Throughout a varied career that has encompassed modeling, graphic design, dog portraitist, auxiliary police office, and blogger, one thing has remained constant: her commitment to the community. Her work can be viewed at www.phelandogart.com.
As a girl growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, Stephanie Phelan’s first love was painting and—thanks to an uncle who built her a studio—she had ample opportunity to practice the art. “I was considered a prodigy and I sold all my paintings when I was a kid,” she says. “They thought I would go on to become a fine artist but I didn’t want that life. I wanted to be a blonde, busty cheerleader. I wanted to be normal!” she continues, laughing. “Needless to say, it never happened.”
After a year-and-a-half of college, Phelan moved to New York in 1965 and got a job at advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. “I was an administrative assistant and an art buyer,” she recalls. “They were wonderful to me. I met all kinds of people and a lot of photographers who came in would say, ‘We want her to become a model.’ I was in a couple of magazine spreads but it wasn’t much, believe me. I just wasn’t suited for it. I didn’t have the personality. But it was fun for about six months to have people introduce me as a model.” However, what Phelan did learn was graphic design, a skill that has steadily supported her over the years, including a period when she lived on Martha’s Vineyard and worked as a freelance designer for the local Chamber of Commerce. She moved back to Manhattan for good in 1979.
When she was nearing 40 and feeling she needed a backup career, Phelan went back to painting. Only this time it was what she calls “primitive miniatures” of dogs. “It was kind of a natural because I love dogs and I love icons,” she says. “I found little pieces of wood on the street and bought enamel paint sets. I did them a little tongue in cheek as icons but I really feel that our dogs are something spiritual for us.” Why the miniature format? “Part of what prompts my creative endeavors is a feeling that there’s a void in a certain area. At the time I started doing dog portraits, there were just traditional oil portraits. So my small icons just felt right and people really loved them.”
In keeping with her sense of community, one of Phelan’s proudest achievements was becoming an Auxiliary Police officer in 1981. “I joined the Sixth Precinct on West 10th Street,” she says. “I went into training, got my shield and that was that. It was wonderful. I became even more attached to the neighborhood and I learned a lot about people. You don’t have to be tough all the time, just some times. Mostly you’re just being genial. I gained a great deal of self-confidence and my husband was very supportive of it even though we split up a year or two later.”
Not surprisingly, for someone who has spent so much time on the streets of the West Village, Phelan has had a bird’s eye view of the changes over the years. “I think most people see it as changing a lot,” she says. “It’s gotten safer. It’s gotten a little less interesting in a lot of ways, too. It’s not so much of a Pinko liberal place anymore.” She laughs. “Although, my attitude towards that has changed too,” she continues. “On that end of things I’m more conservative and I do believe in law enforcement and I believe that people objecting to things like a fence around Washington Square Park isn’t reasonable. We want things to be clean, safe and pleasant and there has to be some rules.”
It also feels like the West Village has become a tighter neighborhood as well to Phelan. “It might just be my personal experience of having a dog, living in my amazing building, and being on the police force,” she says. “But you know everybody. You can’t walk down the street without saying hello to twenty people. You feel people are there for you and I’m there for them. The changes to the neighborhood haven’t seemed so bad to me because I find my street is still safe and pretty and friendly. This is where my community is. I love living in the Village! I can’t tell you…it just brings tears to my eyes.”
Photo of Stephanie Phelan by Maggie Berkvist.