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 Nellie Mae Rowe  (1900 - 1982)

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Lived/Active: Georgia      Known for: naive figure-genre

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Ad Code: 3
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Nellie’s House
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
Biography from Morris Museum of Art:
Born on the 4th of July in 1900, self-taught artist Nellie Mae Rowe was the ninth of ten children of Sam and Luella (Swanson) Williams. The family lived on a rented farm in Fayette County, Georgia, a rural community twenty miles south of Atlanta. Sam, born a slave, used his expertise as a blacksmith and basketweaver to augment the family income. Luella was a talented seamstress and quilter, skills she taught to her daughter. The family worshiped at Flat Rock African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest active congregation in the area. The church housed an elementary school that Nellie Mae attended for several years. She married Ben Wheat in 1916, and the childless couple moved to Vinings, a rural community northwest of Atlanta, fourteen years later. Ben died in 1936, and later that year Nellie Mae married Henry “Buddy” Rowe, a much older widower. In 1939, the couple built their home on the main street of Vinings, where they spent the rest of their lives. In addition to working as a domestic, Nellie Mae spent her time transforming that house, which became a local landmark, into a fanciful environment.

Buddy Rowe died in 1948, and Nellie Mae increased her artistic output. She called her home her “playhouse” and exuberantly embellished it inside and outside with colorful drawings, stuffed dolls, sculptures, Christmas ornaments, plastic flowers, and recycled objects. Her unusually decorated swept yard attracted positive and negative attention. Nellie Mae welcomed curious visitors to tour her home, sign a guestbook, and listen to her sing gospel songs. Among her visitors were artists and collectors who succeeded in bringing her work to a larger audience. Nellie Mae achieved national recognition as an artist in the last decade of her life, which coincided with her most prolific period artistically.

The first exhibition in which Nellie Mae’s work was included was Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art 1770–1976 at the Atlanta History Center. Atlanta art dealer Judith Alexander befriended Nellie Mae and staged her first solo exhibition in November 1978. The following year, Rowe took her first trip outside of Georgia to view her work at Parsons/Dreyfuss Gallery in New York City. In 1981 she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and succumbed to it on October 18, 1982. She is buried in the cemetery at Flat Rock African Methodist Episcopal Church.

A devoutly religious woman, Nellie Mae attributed her talent to God, but her subject matter reflects her personal vision and contemporary events and often includes symbolic elements that are Christian, African, and Afro-Caribbean. Her distinctive style illustrates her sense of color and form, which is devoid of adherence to perspective or scale. Nellie Mae preferred to use humble materials—crayons, pencils, cardboard, recycled food containers, used chewing gum, and scraps of fabrics. She delighted in embellishing her work with trinkets, marbles, plastic flowers, and toys. Her unique view of life, with her insertion of text and tracings of her hands and feet, is the legacy that this self-taught artist left behind. Her work is included in the collections of the Morris Museum of Art, High Museum of Art, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, Tubman African-American Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, American Folk Art Museum, and the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Karen Towers Klacsmann
Adjunct Assistant Curator/Research
Morris Museum of Art
Augusta, Georgia

Submitted by the Morris Museum of Art

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