Carnegie Mellon University

Creating a Legacy

Carnegie Tech alumna offered disadvantaged children free art lessons and inspiration for a better life

It was 1968. Young mother Phyllis Aiello Coates had lost both her father and her husband that year. She felt hopeless as she contemplated supporting herself and her 10-year-old daughter Wendy on her own. A mutual friend who knew Phyllis needed some assistance in moving to a new apartment referred Frank Tillman Sr., the pastor of a Hill District church who was known for helping those in need, to her. Frank transported her things in his truck to her new home and, during the move, mentioned that his young son was interested in drawing.

In gratitude for his help, she offered to give his son, Frank Tillman Jr., free art lessons in her home on Saturday mornings, sharing the knowledge she gained earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Carnegie Tech. (Frank later went on to earn his master's degree and taught art for many years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.)

“That’s how it started,” Phyllis remembers. “[They] saved my life.”

Phyllis first came to Carnegie Tech as part of a high school enrichment program for promising artists. She later matriculated and then graduated in 1947, beginning her career as an illustrator in New York City. In the 1950s, she returned to her hometown of Pittsburgh where she continued to excel as an educator, painter and illustrator, specializing in painting children in her studio. She received commissions from Boston, Detroit, Chicago, New York and New London, Connecticut, and once appeared on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Her dedication to children included everyone, from the prominent families who could afford to perch their kids on her "captain's chair" for a portrait sitting to families with more limited resources. Those first free art lessons led to numerous children from neighborhoods like Homewood receiving free instruction in art and in life from “Mrs. Coates.”

“When you’re teaching anything, I don’t care what, you have to make life appear in front of them. I just wanted them to know other things besides how to draw a straight line. I don’t think you can draw anything unless you know what you’re doing means something.”

Phyllis also taught at arts-based organizations like the Arts and Crafts Center in Pittsburgh and similar institutions in California as well as in the Pittsburgh Public Schools as both a full-time and substitute teacher.

Now 96 years old and still living on her own in Huntington Beach, California, near her daughter who is now a doctor, Phyllis still advocates for the power of art to lift children up and give them a voice — and a chance for a better life.

“My dad was an old-time doctor and made house calls, and he didn’t make a lot of money doing that. They were his family, too, the people he took care of.” Phyllis recalls. “I guess that’s where I got a lot of my ideas. The children I worked with, they became my family.”