The Cousen Rose Gallery on upper Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs is much more than a venue for viewing art. The fine art gallery is also a popular gathering place for locals and Vineyard visitors alike that has, throughout its four decades, attracted some very impressive guests. Among the many internationally known artists whose work owner Zita Cousens has shown over the years are the late Lois Maillou Jones and Romaire Beardon, among others.
The outgoing, energetic, and casually elegant gallery has also hosted book signings for the likes of Dorothy West, Henry Louis (Skip) Gates Jr., Gwen Ifill, Charlayne Hunter Gault, and former U.S. senator Edward Brooks. Visitors who have passed through include Angela Davis, Danny Glover, and Atlanta mayor Keisha Bottoms.
But lest one think that Cousens focuses solely on artists of note, a visit to the gingerbread cottage gallery with a lovely side garden will present one with a wide range of work by artists both local and nationally recognized.
Although Cousens continues to exhibit work by those who have shown at famed institutions like the Smithsonian and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she is always interested in discovering new talent. “I love showing emerging artists,” she says. “I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to represent a number of pre-eminent African American artists during my 40-plus years in business, but I don’t focus exclusively on Black art or Black artists. I am open to all artists, and I love the diverse group of visitors that my gallery has attracted over the years.”
Cousen Rose’s popular weekly Saturday receptions always attract a lively crowd, representing all walks of life, all ages and a mix of those who have frequented the gallery for years, as well as newcomers.
“It’s more than just a gallery, it’s a crossroads,” says Cousens. “People meet here and go out for dinner afterwards. People who haven’t seen each other for ten years bump into each other. There’s a lot of networking that goes on. Recent college grads are introduced to professionals in all fields. It’s a positive, not at all pretentious, environment, one that’s welcoming to all.”
The Cousen Rose gallery opened its doors in 1980, when Cousens and artist Steven Rose decided to join forces and establish a space to exhibit their work. At the time Cousens was designing one-of-a-kind bags and selling them at festivals and artisan shows. “I saw a sign that said ‘For Rent’ and I immediately imagined what the space could look like,” she recalls. “I walked to the nearest pay phone, called the landlord and asked if he could hold it for me for three days.”
A businesswoman at heart, Cousens consulted with friends from Harvard Business School before sealing the deal. “I didn’t call it a gallery at the time,” she says. “It was just Cousen Rose [for the partners’ last names].” Pretty soon Cousens realized that she couldn’t keep up with demand for the bags and decided that running a gallery is what she really wanted to do. Eventually Rose left to focus full time on his art, although he continued to show at the gallery for many years.
Among the first artists to be featured in solo shows were Lois Maillou Jones and Delilah Pierce, two renowned African American painters whose work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian as well as other major institutions. Along the way Cousens has shown the work of many other preeminent artists, including Harlem Renaissance photographer James Vanderzee and Ken Davie, who is represented by the Hirschl & Adler Galleries in NYC.
Cousens has always been passionate about supporting emerging artists. One such person, whom the gallerist is especially proud of recognizing early in her career, is mixed-media artist and children’s book illustrator Ekua Holmes. The gallery has featured Holmes’ colorful collages for the past nine years. The Boston-based artist has gone on to be honored with a NAACP Image Award and her work can now be found at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
A local artist that Cousens is excited about introducing to her gallery this year is Bricque Garber, whose abstract paintings are a testament to the wide range of styles featured at the gallery. The work on exhibit at any given time incorporates all types of themes and styles from painting to photography to mixed media, and from landscapes to figurative work to abstraction. Although Cousens offers ceramics from Chilmark Pottery and a small selection of jewelry, she emphasizes that the gallery is “not a gift shop.” The necklaces and earrings on display are all-one-of-a-kind statement pieces. Cousens has also reserved a small corner in the back of the gallery for creations by Myrna Morris, whose line of On-the-Bluffs shirts, hats, and bags have become hugely popular over the years.
The Cousen Rose Gallery also carries a select inventory of books for both children and adults. The weekly receptions often include a book signing by an author with a local connection like Gates or prominent journalist and novelist Jill Nelson. Concurrently with her job as a gallery owner, Cousens enjoyed a long career in counseling. “I’m adamant about carrying books for children that deal with diverse subjects. That’s a crossover from my counseling days.”
A longstanding gallery tradition was born when Cousens happened to hear two musicians busking on Circuit Ave. She invited the young keyboard player, Jeremy Berlin, to perform at her next reception and music has been an integral part of the Saturday evening gatherings ever since. Berlin and a number of other local musicians have entertained guests over the years. In 2019 the popular keyboard player’s son, Silas Berlin, was the featured musician. “I love having students come and play,” says Cousens. “I feel like it’s come full circle.”
Stop by the Cousen Rose gallery any Saturday evening in July or August and you’ll be treated to a scene that’s not simply a gallery reception but a vibrant gathering of people enjoying the art, the music, the fellowship and, if you’re lucky, a sampling of Cousens’ famous rum cake and a glass of wine.
Cousen Rose Gallery, 71 Upper Circuit Ave., Oak Bluffs; 508-693-6656. cousenrose.com.