Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982)
The Formative Years
Born on July 4, 1900, in a Fayette County farming community twenty miles south of Atlanta, she was the ninth of ten children born to Luella Swanson and Sam Williams. Her father was born into slavery, and her mother was born after emancipation in 1864. Her father rented a farm and augmented the family income by working as a blacksmith and a basket weaver. Both parents were respected members of the community, Rowe's father for his business sense and handicraft skills and Rowe's mother for her expertise as a seamstress and quilter.
Rowe showed an early talent for drawing and doll making, endeavors she preferred to her work as a farmhand. The family attended Flat Rock African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest active congregation in the area. The fellowship hall, adjacent to the church, also housed the elementary school that the young artist attended for several years. In 1916 she married Ben Wheat. Fourteen years later, the couple moved to Vinings, a rural community northwest of Atlanta, in pursuit of better opportunities. Her husband died in 1936, and later that year she married Henry "Buddy" Rowe, a much older widower with three grown children. In 1937 the couple built their home on the main street in Vinings, just a few miles from the Georgia governor's mansion, which is part of the Buckhead community. The Rowes would spend the rest of their lives in that house.
In 1981 Rowe was diagnosed with cancer. She died on October 18, 1982, and is buried in the cemetery at Flat Rock African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fayetteville.
Rowe's distinctive style shows an intuitive sense of color and form. She preferred simple materials—crayons, markers, pencils, pens, paper, cardboard, egg cartons, and Styrofoam food trays—and enjoyed creating works of art from recycled objects by fashioning figures from chewing gum or dolls from fabric scraps. Trinkets, marbles, and plastic toys often embellish her work. Rowe also drew on or added collage elements to cast-off items to create new pieces of art. Unconcerned
Although Rowe stressed that she was a devout Christian, such African and Afro-Caribbean symbolism as haints, charms, and protective signs are often found in her work. Texts, tracings of her hands and feet, African American cultural figures, images of personal friends, self-portraits, and fanciful creatures also populate her lush landscapes.
Rowe's unorthodox view of life has left an indelible mark on the study of self-taught southern artists. Her work is included in numerous private and public collections, including the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Library of Congress American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C., and the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
J. Richard Gruber, Nellie Mae Rowe, exhibition catalog (Augusta, Ga.: Morris Museum of Art, 1996).
Lee Kogan, ed., The Art of Nellie Mae Rowe: Ninety-Nine and a Half Won't Do (New York: Museum of American Folk Art, 1998; distributed by the University Press of Mississippi).
Nellie's Playhouse, prod. and dir. Linda Connelly Armstrong (Memphis, Tenn.: Center for Southern Folklore, 1983), video.
Karen Towers Klacsmann, Morris Museum of Art
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.