Galleries : An Artful Lifestyle: Zita Cousens
Cousen Rose gallery is about to start its day. Owner Zita Cousens sweeps in, elegant in a black and white ensemble accessorized with wearable art - a striking necklace of multiple strands of rose quartz with a hand-wrought silver medallion. She unlocks the gallery doors to the small gingerbread-style house on upper Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, and positions the sign "Children Welcome" at a table on which there is a bowl of crayons. After the gallery lights have been turned on to illuminate the photographs, paintings, pottery and jewelry, she settles behind her desk and smiles - beams, actually. Among the Island's art galleries, Cousen Rose, now in its 29th consecutive season, is as distinctive as its proprietor.
The cozy space displaying an eclectic mix of art is only open from June to September, because Ms. Cousens is employed the rest of the year as a high school guidance counselor at Boston Latin School, the nation's oldest public school.
For Ms. Cousens, neither endeavor feels like work, and she approaches each with passion, great organizational skills, lots of lists, and copious energy. While admitting "balance" is still elusive, she has learned to savor her scant downtime.
When she was about six years old, her father, an aeronautical and design engineer, built her a drafting table where she began copying his engineering drawings. About the same time, her mother taught her to use a sewing machine. Ms. Cousens traces her affinity for graphics, architecture, and design to these experiences, as well as the craftsmanship to create a line of unique handbags she began producing while still in college.
Cousen Rose Gallery came about in a burst of serendipity when Ms. Cousens, then a student at Simmons College, and her friend, the painter Stephen D. Rose, spotted a "For rent" sign in an Oak Bluffs shop window in Feb., 1980.
Within minutes, they hatched a plan to open a gallery that summer that would feature his art and her designer bags; the idea of exhibiting others' work came later. The gallery name is a contraction of their surnames and, although the business partnership dissolved three years later, Mr. Rose is the only artist whose work Ms. Cousens has shown in each of the gallery's 29 seasons.
Ms. Cousens says her two professions complement each other because they draw from different parts of her brain, but overlap in significant ways. Counseling highly stressed students who need personal, social and emotional support in addition to assistance in applying to college requires listening, compassion, the ability to mediate, facilitate and manage crises. The gallery taps her business skills in managing people, finances, events, advertising and sales as well as her penchant for graphic design and her eye for hanging a show.
Both professions also demand high energy and stamina, whether to keep up with fast-moving students or multi-task through a gallery day. Saying that she is "no expert [in either field]" and "easily bored," Ms. Cousens savors the challenge of changing gears and learning constantly. In both roles, she is a communicator, educator, consultant and resource.
Never intending to become a gallery owner, Ms. Cousens studied psychology and special education. She hoped she might eventually run a business.
She says her parents taught her the virtue of graciousness, which she honors by making her counseling office and her gallery approachable to all visitors. She engages her customers, selling by listening to their taste and educating them on the techniques involved in creating a piece they admire. Gallery visitors from around the world are likely to leave with a personalized itinerary to make their Island experience more memorable.
Within weeks of opening, Cousen Rose Gallery, then several stores down Circuit Avenue from its current location, attracted the attention of artists like renowned African American Harlem Renaissance painter Lois Mailou Jones and American still life painter Ken Davies, both of whom had Island connections and agreed to exhibit work there. Ms. Cousens bartered with a local musician to offer live music for a Saturday evening artist's reception and a tradition was born.
Her goal is to exhibit pieces found nowhere else, but she interprets "work of art" liberally and strives to offer a wide variety of media and price points. While she features local artists including Deborah Colter, Christine Alesch, John Breckenridge, and Dana Gaines, she shows original art from all over the world. She sells clothing printed with images created by Steve London and Myrna Morris (whose original goytaku fish prints and acrylic/mixed media work she represents), and sponsors trunk shows for Vital Signs' unique block printed designs. The gallery also hosts book signings for local writers and runs children's art classes in its entry court.
Even when Cousens' peripatetic life, complete with husband and step-children, is at its most demanding in May and June when the rush to conclude the school year overlaps with planning for the gallery season, she confesses to being "boggled" by the frequently-asked question about whether the rewards are worth the effort. She smiles, "Would I do this for 29 years if I didn't love it?"
Alice Early, a business writer and consultant, lives in Chilmark.