Nellie Mae Rowe was driven to create from the time she was a small child. Born on July 4, 1900 in Fayette County, Georgia, the ninth child of Louella and Samuel Williams spent much of her youth helping to cultivate cotton, sweet potatoes, corn, and beans on the family’s rented farmland. She also took delight in drawing pictures and making dolls, activities she would continue for the rest of her life.
Nellie married Ben Wheat when she was 16, and the couple later moved to the town of Vinings, then on the outskirts of Atlanta. It was after Wheat’s untimely death and her move to the home of her nephew Joe Brown, Sr. that Nellie met widower Henry (“Buddy”) Rowe (b. ??–d. 1948), whom she married in 1936. Three years later, the Rowes built a simple wooden house on the town’s main road—the house Nellie would transform into what she would call her “playhouse.”
Judith Wearing a Party Dress, by Nellie Mae Rowe Courtesy of Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Here, Rowe’s creativity was brought to full flower. Traffic slowed as drivers gazed at her fantasyland of a yard: drawings and handmade trinkets hanging from tree branches, toddler-size dolls in small folding chairs, the occasional tabletop sculpture crafted from chewing gum, and myriad other fantastical creations.
“When other people have things that they don’t want they throw them away, but not me; I’m going to make something,” said Rowe in a conversation recorded in the late 1970s. “I’ve been that way ever since I was a child. I would take nothing and make something of it.”
Anyone lucky enough to be invited inside Rowe’s home was treated to walls chock-a-block with photographs, dolls, plastic flowers, and Rowe’s crayon drawings—vividly colored and cleverly integrated images of ladies in hats, of birds and flowers and trees, of dogs and pigs and roosters and goats, all of them telling some kind of story.
In 1976, a number of Rowe’s creations were included in “Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art 1770–1976,” mounted by the Atlanta Historical Society. It was here that Judith Alexander first laid eyes on Rowe’s art, and soon after she arranged to meet the artist in Vinings. In Judith, Nellie met the advocate who would not only encourage her but also expose her art to the world.
Rowe’s first one-woman show opened at the Alexander Gallery in 1978 and was exhibited in New York’s Parsons Dreyfuss Gallery the following year.
More exhibitions followed, most notably “Black Folk Art in America 1932–1980” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1982, the year of Rowe’s death; “Nellie Mae Rowe: Visionary Artist, Southern Arts Federation” (toured 1983–1985); “Nellie Mae Rowe” at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia (1996); and “The Art of Nellie Mae Rowe—Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do” at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York (1999), an exhibition that would subsequently travel to Atlanta and Dallas.
The writer of the catalog for the 1996 Morris Museum exhibition—arts writer, editor, and teacher (and Judith Alexander Foundation board member) Xenia Zed —encapsulated Rowe’s gift in its pages:
Nellie Mae Rowe at home in Smyrna, GA. Photo by Judith Alexander Augustine, 1971.
Nellie chronicled her life and the lives of those close to her . . . as a child, as a young woman, as a wild thing . . . married, getting old, passing on and always, always as Nellie the observer. Nellie the watcher. Life according to Nellie—a teeming amalgamation of life forms either most familiar to Nellie or ones she was most curious about: her house, her street, her yard, the town, mules, dogs, guinea hens, pea fowl, fish, birds, horses, people, myths, local legends, and things we have never seen before, those “things that ain’t been born yet.” Nellie was a person who visually said, “I will not be invisible.”
Nellie Mae Rowe died October 18, 1982 in Vinings, Georgia. She is buried in the cemetery at the Flat Rock A.M.E. Church in Fayetteville, Georgia.
Nellie's Hands by Lucinda Bunnen, 1979