Aug. 13, 2003 – "You don't know what will happen when you start something," Rhoda Tillett once told an interviewer, "but it's gratifying when you realize what you've worked for."
Tillett must have felt gratified many times over in the 43 years that she called St. Thomas home. And yet she was never one to rest on her laurels.
"I like what I'm doing," she told the same interviewer. "I've always told my sons you must like what you're doing, because your whole life revolves around your work. I don't quit or close it off at 5 p.m., because what I do is part of my life."
That life came to an end on Monday evening, and as word reached the Virgin Islands on Wednesday, the territory's arts community went into mourning.
Tillett died in Raleigh, North Carolina, where her son Eric and his family live, after a long struggle with cancer. Her body was cremated on Wednesday, he said, and arrangements are pending for a memorial service to be held in Tillett Gardens on St. Thomas.
Tillett was what one observer termed "the artists' ally" — the mover and shaker behind the evolution of Tillett Gardens as the territory's first and most-enduring arts and crafts center and the founder of the Arts Alive Festivals, Classics in the Garden concerts and annual Classical Music Competition events.
Arts Alive worked because Rhoda Tillett worked: The numbers add up to more than 70 concerts over 16 seasons, 60 festivals showcasing some 2,000 local artists and artisans and 200 local musicians, and 14 years of music competitions attracting in excess of a thousand entries.
"It is difficult to call to mind anyone who has worked as hard for so long and believed so fervently in bringing the visual and performing arts to our community," Diana White, president of the board of Arts Alive, the presenting entity of The Tillett Foundation, said Wednesday. For nearly five decades, she said, "Rhoda strove tirelessly to achieve her dream of making available a broad range of artistic expression, particularly to the young, in these islands.
"All those who had the pleasure and privilege of working with her became enamored of Rhoda's unique style and unwavering enthusiasm for the arts. She was determined that our small size and geographic location should not be a barrier to us enjoying art in its many forms and of the highest standard."
And yes, there will be a 2003-04 Classics season. The board earlier this summer contracted St. Thomas musician and educator Roger Lakins to serve as executive director of Arts Alive, and four concerts have been booked.
Lakins remembered Tillett on Wednesday for "that wonderful zest for life that is typical of movers and shakers. She devoted her limitless energy to art and creativity in so many forms because she had the wisdom to know that art is not simply decoration and entertainment, but a crucial part of the healthy diet. It would be unthinkable for what she built with such vigor and pizzazz to die with her."
"Give it a whirl!"
Tillett and her husband, the late Jim Tillett, moved to St. Thomas in 1959 as newlyweds and purchased an abandoned Danish farm to serve as home for Jim Tillett's silkscreen studio. For 28 years, she oversaw the marketing end of the business managing the boutique that sold yard goods and fashions made from his silkscreened designs.
She got to know every seamstress on the island, she recalled a few years ago, and "for 28 years, the only clothes I wore were Jim Tillett prints!"
In 1980, conversations with a number of local artists about the lack of a venue to show their work led her to organize the first of the Arts Alive fairs that would continue thrice a year for the next 17 years. After that, the fairs — rechristened festivals — continued as annual events over the Thanksgiving weekend until last fall, when Tillett retired and handed the reins over to others to carry on the tradition elsewhere.
In 1988, she closed the boutique and opened Tillett Gallery to showcase Jim Tillett's silkscreen art as well as work by other artists.
Born on Oct. 10, 1929, Rhoda Temperman grew up in Brooklyn. She graduated from New York University and was working in public relations in New York City when she met Jim Tillett while vacationing in Mexico. Her publicity and marketing background served her well as she pursued her dream of transforming Tillett Gardens into a haven for the performing as well as visual arts.
She introduced Classics in the Garden concerts in 1987, and was responsible for booking all of the talent that performed up to and including the 2002-03 concerts. For five seasons — until last year — there was also a series of non-classical concerts featuring blues, jazz and Broadway artists. A decade ago, she forged partnerships with the St. John School of the Arts and venues on St. Croix and Tortola to do block bookings of artists traveling from off-island. The St. John connection is still firmly intact.
Ruth "Sis" Frank, St. John School of the Arts director, recalled on Wednesday that when Tillett proposed the idea, her response was "What if no one comes?" But "Rhoda, in her inimitable style of good humor and love of music combined with a flair for promotion, replied, 'Give it a whirl!'"
Frank did, and "our St. John audiences were treated to the best of the jazz, blues and classical artists available." Of Tillett, she said, "her loving spirit will always be a part of the St. John School of the Arts."
In 1990, Tillett took on a new project, organizing and finding sponsorship for the first Classical Music Competition for young musicians. The annual event continued through last year, involving music students from St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John.
Jo-Sandra Jones James is one of the music educators whose pupils consistently did well in the competitions. Three years ago, in an article summarizing Tillett's accomplishments, James praised her for being "adamant about getting as many students as possible to take part … she even allows them to come into the garden during the day and practice on the piano. She always invites school groups to perform at the fairs, and she provides complimentary tickets to students to attend the concerts."
Tillett Gardens is staying
To those wondering about the fate of Tillett Gardens, Eric Tillett has the answer: It's going to remain Tillett Gardens, and it's going to get better.
The property was put on the market several years ago, but Rhoda Tillett specified that the buyer would have to keep the Arts Alive traditions going. With rumors rampant in January that an auto dealership was set to close a deal, she sent out an e-mail that read: "You heard the news that we are not selling the garden but hoping to sell more concert tickets, okay?"
Eric Tillett, who like his brother was born and reared on St. Thomas, has taken over management of the property. He was on island on Monday when he learned of his mother's death.
"I'm in the middle of a big fix-up," he said Wednesday. "We have a new restaurant coming in, we're in the midst of paving the parking lot, and we'll be expanding to make it more of what it was, with more artists." And he has plans to move back to St. Thomas permanently "at some point."
Among the many recognitions Rhoda Tillett received for her contributions to the arts were a tribute at the St. Thomas Arts Council's 1989 Beaux Arts Ball, a medal conferred by Gov. Roy L. Schneider at the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts ceremony in 1997, and the 2000 Community Service Award from the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce.
"If you are fortunate, a few people will come into your life and make a difference to you," Diana White said on Wednesday. "Rhoda was, for me, one of those people. As a friend she knew no boundaries; she was gen
erous of spirit, a great listener and had a wonderful sense of humor. By just being 'Rhoda' she illustrated how to see the best in everyone; anything less seemed so ungracious! … She had the ability to understand and communicate with all ages on every level and was non-judgmental. A truly free spirit, Rhoda will leave a void in our lives."
Tillett is survived by her son Eric, his wife Kellie and their children Dexter and Hudson; her son Boris, his wife Beth and his daughter Rachel; her sister Emily Rosen; and, at Tillett Gardens, by Albert "Sonny" Thomas, master silkscreener and protégé of Jim Tillett; and Vivian Faulkner, gallery manager. And, indeed, friends too numerous to name.
Those wishing to honor her memory are invited to make a contribution to Arts Alive. Checks made out to The Tillett Foundation may be mailed to Tillett Art Gallery, 4126 Estate Anna's Retreat, St. Thomas VI 00802.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.