Zita Cousens

Her Oak Bluffs gallery is in its thirtieth year and going strong.

Cousen Rose Gallery, the beige Victorian cottage at the upper end of Circuit Avenue, looks inviting. Unlike most galleries, it has a courtyard with a worktable for children, as well as paintings, pottery, photography, prints, jewelry, and books. Inviting has always been part of Zita Cousens’s plan for her business, which celebrates thirty years in business this summer.

Long before the Oak Bluffs Art District blossomed in the backyard neighborhood that her seasonal gallery now skirts, Cousen Rose arrived in Oak Bluffs to become one of the town’s first art galleries, and now its longest running, as well as one of the first African American–owned businesses. Not that Zita thinks of the gallery as ethnic.

“I wouldn’t say I am a gallery that focuses exclusively on African American art,” she explains. “It’s the best art I can find, and what my clientele might buy.”

But she has always had support from members of the black community, who stop in frequently. “I like to think everybody who walks in feels very comfortable and finds something interesting,” Zita says. She is active in the community, supporting such events as the Camp Ground’s annual cottage tour fundraiser by hosting a reception at the gallery, providing awards for the children in the All Island Art Show at the Tabernacle, fundraising for the hospital and fireworks, and participating in the annual Harborfest. In Oak Bluffs, she points out, “You can’t go to the post office and not see someone you know.”

Cousen Rose offers a diverse collection of art – not just lighthouses and seascapes but still lifes, portraits, and abstracts by a mix of both Islanders and off-Islanders. Many of its current roster of twenty-two artists, such as photographer John Breckenridge and painters Marietta Cleasby and Myrna Morris, have been exhibiting there for many years.

Zita’s own, longtime, creative outlet is sewing. A slender, energetic woman who divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Newton, she took up sewing early, inspired by her mother, Inez, a “fantastic” seamstress. Her great-aunt Hilda Stephens lived in Oak Bluffs year-round, so Zita had plenty of opportunities to visit the Vineyard, though she grew up in Billerica. Her aeronautical engineer father, Major, worked on the top-secret Hawk and Sparrow missiles.

Until Zita was ten, there was no television in the house, so the emphasis was on creativity. “I was out there peddling all my little creations: flower perfumes, fruit stands,” she says. “My brother George was my biggest supporter.”

By 1980, Zita lived in Boston’s South End and had just finished grad school at Simmons College. She started a thirty-year career as a counselor at the Boston Latin School that is still going strong but was also taking her one-of-a-kind designer bags to festivals.

While on-Island in February of that year, she saw a “Space for Rent” sign on Circuit Avenue, at what is now Knickers lingerie shop. “I thought, wow, I could have a business,” she remembers. A friend and colleague, painter Stephen Rose, was a willing partner. Dropping the “s” on Zita’s last name, they came up with the gallery’s name during a dinner conversation.

She called the building’s owner and asked him to hold the space. Zita had two and a half months to set up her signature, monochromatic motif of reeds, cat-o’-nine-tails, and beige fabric on the walls for hanging art. By one o’clock on Memorial Day, the doors opened with Stephen’s landscapes and Zita’s designer bags. “It was packed,” she says. “We almost sold out.” African American artists Lois Mailou Jones and Delilah Pierce walked in and became among the first exhibitors. By the next year, the gallery also included still-life painter Ken Davies.

After three years in business, Stephen wanted more freedom to paint, so they dissolved their partnership, though he continues to exhibit at Cousen Rose. And after the fourth year, Zita stopped making her unique “Z” bags. “I did not physically have time,” she says, and she did not want to put her name on work she could not sew herself.

When she was approached by the owners of her present location, they offered her a five-year lease, renovations to suit her, and first refusal on the sale of the building. So Cousen Rose opened there on the gallery’s tenth anniversary in 1990. “I had nightmares,” Zita says. “I was so far down the street.” But it turned into a very good season, and she ended up buying the building.

“I’m a dual-career person,” Zita says. “My energy level is such that I need to do two careers.” The only time things get a little hairy is in June before Boston Latin is out. She keeps to a five-year plan. And though it’s not an immediate goal, she has a dream to eventually winterize Cousen Rose, so she can extend her season past Tivoli Day in September and into the fall.

The Z bags may be history, but now Zita makes Z cards for the gallery, using her own Island “icon” photos. “I needed to have something in here that was me,” she says. “I want my hand creatively in the gallery.” She considers herself more designer than artist – having studied design and art history rather than drawing and painting.

“I don’t want to be a gift shop; I don’t want to be a T-shirt shop,” she says. “But when those items are extensions of the artist, it’s okay. It’s an exciting job, and I’m passionate about it.

“A quality that I believe the gallery has is that it’s warm and inviting – not pretentious,” Zita says. “People tell me, ‘You’re the only gallery that welcomes children.’” Zita posts a “Children Welcome” sign and puts out crayons and pencils to make sure the public gets the message, and Oak Bluffs artist Nancy Blank teaches art classes three days a week for children ages six to thirteen. “I’ve always loved working with children,” Zita says. She has two step-
children, now young adults, from her marriage to her Number One Volunteer and husband, Michael Brown, an Emerson political science professor.

“I try to talk with everyone who comes in the door,” Zita says. “This is a very educated clientele visually.” Customers show up from as far away as Norway, England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, Germany, and South America. Each receives a free Z card.

People feel relaxed about coming into Cousen Rose because it’s welcoming, and it has built its reputation on that feeling.

“I see the gallery as a work in progress,” Zita says. “It never gets exactly where I want it to be.” She’s been fine-tuning for thirty years.