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I Am!_2012_DellaWells_14x11.jpg

Della Wells, I AM!, 2022.  Collage, 14 x 11 inches. 


Rosemary Ollison
Della Wells

November 19 - January 12, 2023

Reception and mixer
Sponsored by Imagine MKE and MARN
5 to 8 p.m. Friday, December 9, 2022
5 to 6:45 p.m. at Portrait Society Gallery, meet and greet

7 to 8 p.m. MARN, artist talk moderated by Ariana Vaeth

FREE but please rsvp:   

Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art is thrilled to announce a new exhibition of two of Wisconsin’s most prominent artists: Rosemary Ollison and Della Wells. This is the first time the gallery has presented Ollison and Wells’ work together.




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 where she had lived with her grandparents. She began making art in 1994 while healing from an abusive marriage. Most of her work deals thematically with her identity as a Black women and celebrates the power, individuality, and mystique of all women.


Rosemary creates quilts and fiber works while maintaining a steady drawing and journaling practice. She has built a lively, elegant, pattern-rich environment in her apartment with duct tape sculptures; curtains of beads; woven leather hanging sculptures and necklaces; quilts; and inventive drawings. She also designs clothing and writes poetry. Her exuberant self-made world is a tribute to the hardships she has overcome and the power she feels as a Black woman.  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!”


Butterfly Queens presents a room-sized installation of new fabric hanging sculptures as well as a suite of drawings that have never before been exhibited. Thematically, the textiles deal with Ollison's thoughts about personal imprisonment and her long fight toward liberation of body and mind. 


Portrait Society first presented Ollison’s work in a major exhibition in 2016 and has exhibited her work at the Outsider Art Fair, New York, each year since 2017. Major exhibitions include the Lynden Sculpture Garden; The Saint Kate Art Hotel where she designed a guest room;  Racine Art Museum (Racine, WI); Haggerty Museum of Art (Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI);  UWM Union Gallery, Milwaukee; Indianapolis Public Library; Walker’s Point Center for the Arts; Uihlein Peters Gallery. Her work is included in the collections of the Lynden Sculpture Garden, Northwestern Mutual Insurance, Chipstone Foundation, Milwaukee Art Museum, and the private collections of David Byrne, KAWS, and Joyce Pensato. Ollison’s first solo exhibition in New York City took place in January/February 2022 at Shrine Gallery.


Della Wells (b. 1951) is one of Wisconsin’s best known artists. She began making art at age 42 and has steadfastly grown her career. Primarily known as a collage artist, Wells also makes drawings and mixed media constructions. Butterfly Queens presents a new group of collages as well as new drawings from her “Little Colored Girl” series. Wells’ collages flow within a narrative cycle that takes place in the fictitious world of Mambo Land. Jenée-Daria Strand, curatorial assistant at the Brooklyn Museum, recently wrote that Wells’ work ‘. . .centralizes women of the African diaspora, who are consistently rendered invisible and relegated to the margins of society. . .Della Wells’s works serve as a counter-narrative to the societal rhetoric that encourages conforming to a mutable ideal. Instead, the artist imagines an escape to a place where community is fostered in light of difference, not in spite of it.”


In Mambo Land says Wells, “Black women rule. They roll with the punches; they experience tribulations and know how to deal with them.”


Wells incorporates many recurring symbols in her collages. During the past few years, butterflies have been a frequent motif to symbolize freedom, emancipation, and re-birth.


Della Wells’ work has been widely exhibited, including shows at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (West Bend), Untitled Art Fair (Miami),  the Outsider Art Fair (NY), the Cedarburg Art Museum (WI) in 2020, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 2019, the Loyola University Museum of Art (Chicago) in 2018, and the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2013. A play about her life by Y York, Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly, which was part of the New Voices/New Visions Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C in 2010, premiered in 2011 at the Marcus Center in Milwaukee, and has been staged in Nashville (TN), Charlotte (NC), and Richmond (VA). Her work is in many private and public collections. Her first solo exhibition in New York was in September/October 2022 at Andrew Edlin Gallery. In response to Portrait Society’s exhibition of her work at the Outsider Art Fair in 2022, Roberta Smith of the New York Times described Della Wells as “an amazing collagist born in 1951 who seems to take Romare Bearden as a point of departure. Working with small shards cut or torn from magazines she makes dense, sparkling and mosaic-like urban landscapes that are frequently occupied by a stylishly dressed woman. The results resemble Cubism accelerated for modern times. Wells’s backgrounds — especially her choppy blue skies — are often punctuated with small images, which make the air seem charged with memories.”


Della Wells, Come Have Tea with Me, 2022. Collage, 14 x 11 inches. 


Rosemary Ollison, Water, Flow, Freedom, 2022. Re-purposed and dyed denim, 50 x 54 inches. 


Della Wells, The Quilt Carrier, 2022. Collage, 12 x 16 inches. 


Rosemary Ollison, The Strings that Bind Me, 2022. Re-purposed fabric. Installation consisting of eight sculptures. 


Della Wells, Do Not Come Here Bird to Steal My Truth, 2022. Collage, 20 x 16 inches. 

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