Zita Cousens, the woman behind the gallery

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Cousen Rose Gallery is a popular spot on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. But many people may not know much about Zita Cousens, the dynamic woman behind the site of the longest-running art showplace in town. “I’m an adventurous person,” she says. “I went skydiving in Newport.”

This remarkable woman’s latest of many ventures is Arts in OB — a collaboration of art galleries in Oak Bluffs. Arts in OB came about two years ago when Ann Smith of Featherstone Center for the Arts contacted Zita, as well as Val Francis of Nowhere Gallery. Remember that two years ago, COVID had closed down many retail stores. This didn’t stop Zita or her colleagues. They began meeting regularly on Zoom to lend support to each other, asking each other, What can we do? 

“We collaborate, send people to each other,” Zita says. That’s how Arts in OB came about. It’s already thriving, adding an official website this year (artsinob.com). “We are in discussions about what we’ll do next,” Zita adds. “It’s a supportive group. I don’t know what people’s conceptions are, but it’s a different way of getting us on the map.”

Zita’s Island story begins when she was a baby, when she first came to the Vineyard and then spent summers here with her aunt. The third generation named Zita, she majored in education and psychology at Simmons University in Boston, which offers undergraduate programs for women and co-ed post-graduate programs. While there, Zita’s Sewtique came about. She designed and sewed tote bags, men’s toiletry bags, and clutch bags — all one-of-a-kind.

The next step came when she met Stephen Rose, an artist, and they saw a place on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs with a for-rent sign: “From his dorm room, I called the owner Sid Albert, and he held the space for 48 hours.” The first store sold Zita’s one-of-a-kind bags and Stephen Rose’s artwork. “When we opened, Stephen’s artwork was on the wall,” Zita said. By the end of that summer, Loïs Maillou Jones came into the gallery, and they began to show her work as well. Then they began exhibiting other artists. After three years, Zita and Rose dissolved their partnership, so Rose could display his work in New York. That explains the “Rose” in Cousen Rose Gallery.

“I loved the business, the work of running a gallery,” Zita says. By the 10th year, the trust that owned the buildings in that section of Circuit Avenue asked if she would be interested in moving into the gallery’s current space. Since it had been a residence, she got them to open it up, then give her a long-term lease and, eventually, the first refusal on buying it. That step solidified the longevity of the gallery.

“Maintenance is important,” she says, as well as being consistent. “It feels amazing. I really enjoy curating the work. If I can’t hang the paintings, I’ll hang it up.” Her newest venture is to display encaustic art. Not only does she exhibit emerging artists, but also accomplished ones. The encaustic (pigments mixed with hot wax) artist, Ekua Holmes, for instance, has shown at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Running a gallery is hardly her only enterprise. Although she doesn’t do it anymore, Zita spent many years as a high school counselor. “I loved teaching, but I had the overwhelming

interest to see these adolescents thrive, and as a high school counselor I had them from nine to 12. It’s important work. If you’re a good counselor, you’ll see your students thrive in the world.” An adolescent in the ninth grade who’s angry with his teachers may think he can’t make it, but, as Zita says, “I have enough energy for both of us. It’s an interesting business.” 

Zita emphasizes that she’s not an African-American gallery but rather an African-American gallery owner. She carries a wide variety of art, and says, “I am into diversity and inclusion.” At the same time, she feels it’s important to feature Black artists. “It’s part of the fabric of this country,” she says. “Every year when I open these doors, I get to try something; it’s a new opportunity.”

Cousin Rose Gallery, 71 Circuit Ave., Oak Bluffs; 508-693-6656, cousenrose.com.