Rosemary Ollison – 35th Annual Black Excellence Awards Honoree


Rosemary Ollison is a self-taught Milwaukee artist. Rosemary was raised by her grandparent on a plantation in Arkansas. After the death of her grandfather she and her grandmother moved to the Midwest. Rosemary never really considered herself an artist and, in fact, she didn’t begin making art until she was in her 50s. Initially, her art was ‘therapy’ – a way for her to tell her story about being a Black woman and her journey of healing from a history of abuse.

In 1984, Rosemary began making art to celebrate the power and freedom she began to feel. She is quick to share that she creates art in dialog with God: “When I am creating, I am satisfied. I am free. I no longer just exist, I am alive!

“I had no thoughts about being an artist. I started drawing after reading the Bible because I was confused and looking for my identity. I read Psalm 139:23-24, and was inspired to buy a sketch pad and some magic markers. It was as if the Scriptures were speaking to me. Those first drawings came out of my personal relationship with God.

“Over the next 2-1/2 years I drew more than 2,000 images. The first were about the darkness and pain I felt. After a while, as I came to realize who I was, I started drawing other types of art. The images come into my head. I draw what I see and feel. It’s a gift from God that I would be afraid to take credit for,” Rosemary said of her work.

Rosemary’s journey into the artistic world is interesting and liberating. After graduating from St. Benedict High School, she attended MATC off and on for years, finally earning an associate’s degree in early childhood education. She was employed by St. Francis Children’s Center for special need children—and worked there for more than 18 years. Even though it’s not what she was hired to do, her employer allowed her to do art projects with the children. Most of the art engaged the children, and she enjoyed teaching them.

Now 77 years old, Rosemary said that her creative artwork was as mysterious to her as anyone. She can’t quite explain it, except to say she was inspired by a passage of Scripture and a desire to be healed. Since retirement, her art is so popular and in high demand that it has become her livelihood.

“A friend—Tony Fikes—asked if I was an artist and when I responded that I wasn’t sure, he brought local artist Evelyn Terry to my home. She confirmed that I was an artist; so much so that she included me in her show. After that I met artist Della Wells and became part of their artistic community for a while. I attended various meetings and was in 12 or so shows over time, but I didn’t like the paperwork. We had to submit biographies and artist statements for each show. I didn’t feel as if I was an artist, even though other artists had confirmed to me that I was an artist.”

Rosemary is a winner of emerging artist of the 2018 Noel Fellowship award, and is a City of Milwaukee artist of the year. She has exhibited work at the 2017 and 2018 Outsider Art Fair, in New York; UWM Union Gallery, Milwaukee; Indianapolis Public Library; Walker’s Point Center for the Arts; Uihlein Peters Gallery; Cissy Peltz Gallery, Milwaukee; and Alphons Gallery. Her work is included in the collections of the Chipstone Foundation and the Milwaukee Art Museum. In 2019, she designed a room for the Saint Kate’s Art Hotel, a new art-focused hotel in Milwaukee, in a show “Taking Leather to the Limit” at the Haggerty Museum and had a solo show at the Lynden Sculpture Garden. She is represented by the Portrait Society Gallery.

She remains adamant that her art originates from her personal relationship with God. Originally, she had no intention of sharing her artwork with others. Rosemary credits people like Evelyn Patricia Terry and Della Wells with helping her navigate the arts community. She attended classes at UWM and MATC to learn how to create a website and she designed one for herself. Someone else told her that she should create a Facebook page; she did, but her heart was never into social media. It did, however, expose her to new artists and the art world. It also connected her with Debra Brehmer, the director of the Portrait Society. Debra saw her artwork posted on Facebook and asked Della to introduce her to Rosemary.

Rosemary does not like any of the administrative tasks associated with selling her artwork such as responding to emails, arranging shows or even hanging her artwork. When Della introduced her to Deb, she considered it a godsend.

“I prayed to God to help me get out of doing these dreaded tasks, and a couple of days later Della called and introduced me to Deb. Now she’s handles all the administrative work. If I had to do all those things, I would stop selling my artwork tomorrow, but she does everything for me. It’s a gift. I don’t bring my art to Portrait Society; they come and get it. I trust them. They are professional and take care of me quite well. Everything is documented, so I’m not anxious about anything,” she said. Rosemary understands that her art is a gift; and she wants it to continue long after she’s gone.

“All my needs are fulfilled I’m happy and satisfied. There was a time when I just worked for God and did not have a personal relationship with Him. I totally and completely trust God. I am at the point in my life where I don’t have to search anymore, and I’m at peace.

“I journal and I have more than 450 poems that I have pulled from my journals. I have five books ready to be published. One day they will be published,” she said.