Inside Rosemary Ollison’s home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an intricate art environment has evolved over the course of 30 years. She has obsessively filled her space with homemade rugs and window treatments, textile constructions and quilts made with leather, denim and a wide assortment of other found materials, and stacks of drawings documenting her life. Her exuberant self-made world is a tribute to the hardships she has overcome, the power she feels as a Black woman, and her unwavering devotion to God.
Rosemary Ollison (b. 1942) spent the first sixteen years of her life working on a plantation in Arkansas with her grandparents. The family lived in poverty and shared a room in a building that served as servants’ quarters on the plantation. She often describes the experience as being one or two steps away from slavery. She eventually left the plantation in 1958 following the death of her grandfather and relocated to Milwaukee, where she says she felt like the “walking dead” for almost 30 years while struggling through depression and suicidal thoughts following the trauma and abuse of an unsuccessful marriage.
Ollison spontaneously began making drawings around 1996, and her output was fierce, yielding more than a thousand works on paper within the first four years of becoming an artist. This unexpected outpouring of images and symbols was as mysterious to her as it was to others, and she credits a passage in the Bible for the transformation, Psalm 139, verses 23 and 24: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way of the everlasting.”
Soon after this first creative burst, Ollison began making large-scale quilts and textile pieces without any former experience with the art forms. She used nylon, duct tape, glass beads, old clothing and jewelry, and bones to create abstract and figurative works to help tell her story. The finished constructions unconsciously reference artists such as Chris Martin and Chris Ofili as well as the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.
The Great Connection is Rosemary Ollison’s first solo exhibition in New York and references the many great connections in her life: her connection to God, of course, her connection and love for herself, and the connection she seeks with the world through her art.
Rosemary Ollison (b. 1942) is a self-taught artist who lives in Milwaukee, WI. When she was 16 years old she moved to the midwest from a plantation in Arkansas. She began making art in 1994 while healing from an abusive marriage and for the next 25 years has explored numerous media. Most of her work deals thematically with her identity as a black women and celebrates the power, individuality and mystique of other women. Besides drawing, Rosemary collects glass, leather, bracelets, beads, bones and jewelry and repurposes these materials into sculptural works. She has redesigned her small apartment with layers of pattern, duct tape sculptures, curtains of woven leather, crazy quilts and inventive drawings. She also designs clothing and writes poetry. Ollison says she creates in dialog with God: “When I am creating I am satisfied, I am free! I no longer just exist, I am alive!”
Rosemary Ollison: The Great Connection is on view from January 7 to February 5, 2022 at Shrine Gallery, 179 East Broadway, NYC
This exhibition is in partnership with Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Take a look-back to 2019, when we were first introduced to the whimsical and wonderful work of Rosemary Ollison at the Outsider Art Fair.
Follow the artist on Facebook