An Artist Who Didn’t Know She Was One

By Tessa DeCarlo
New York Times: Arts and Leisure
January 3, 1999

DURING a lifetime of obsessive creativity, Nellie Mae Rowe apparently gave little thought to her place in art history. The hundreds of drawings and collages she made in her three-room house in rural Vinings, Ga., the figures she fashioned out of old stockings and chewing gum, and the densely decorated found-object environment she created in her home and yard were to her simply an intense and deeply satisfying form of play.

Indeed, when visitors began coming to the place she called Nellie’s Playhouse asking to buy her pictures, Rowe was pleased to learn she was an artist at all. ”I didn’t even know that I would ever come to be an artist,” she told one interviewer. ”It is just surprisin’ to me.”

This month, however, the Museum of American Folk Art in Manhattan is presenting Rowe not only as an important 20th-century artist but as one whose work bridges several categories in the sometimes contentious world of folk, outsider and self-taught art.

Titled ”Nellie Mae Rowe: Ninety-Nine-and-a-Half Won’t Do” (a reference to one of the artist’s favorite gospel hymns), the show runs from Jan. 16 through May 16 and includes some 75 drawings and sculptures. To underscore Rowe’s multifaceted appeal, the museum points out that the show’s opening comes just in time for both the Outsider Art Fair, which runs Jan. 22-24 at the Puck Building in downtown Manhattan, and the National Black Fine Art Show, taking place the following weekend (Jan. 29-31) in the same SoHo location.

While there’s no argument that Rowe was African-American — her father was a former slave and her grandfather, according to family lore, was born in Africa — it’s less clear whether she was a fine artist or a folk artist, a folk artist or an outsider. Lee Kogan, director of the museum’s Folk Art Institute and curator of the exhibition, contends that although these labels are often regarded as mutually exclusive, Rowe’s work comfortably fits them all.

”Her virtuosity and range of expression are diverse and broad and elusive and very interesting,” Ms. Kogan said in regard to Rowe’s fine-art credentials. ”She’s an important artist who has been underappreciated and deserves wider recognition.” At the same time, Ms. Kogan’s essay in the richly illustrated exhibition catalogue offers an in-depth exploration of the myriad folk roots of Rowe’s work, ranging from possible African influences to explicit references to gospel and Southern folklore.

And although Rowe was, by all accounts, perfectly sane, Ms. Kogan believes her work displays many of the classic characteristics of outsider art, customarily defined as art created out of insanity, isolation or extreme eccentricity. ”Nellie Mae Rowe created an alternate world, her Playhouse,” Ms. Kogan explained. ”She’s obsessive — she drew all the time, constantly. Her expression shows a disregard for logical constraints and is based on dreams, fantasies, imagination. We don’t use the term ‘outsider’ because of its negative connotations, but she has many of those characteristics.”

Rowe was born in 1900 on a small farm outside Atlanta and died 82 years later in a town just a few miles away. She attended three or four years of school but spent most of her childhood working on the family farm. Whenever she could, she would sneak away to draw and make dolls. ”She told me when she was a little girl she’d take the laundry, the dirty stockings and socks, and tie them up and make dolls out of them,” said Joe Brown Sr., Rowe’s 85-year-old nephew. ”Her parents’d whup her. They didn’t know nothing about art.”

Rowe married at 16 and worked most of her life as a domestic. She never had children. After her second husband died, in 1948, she began to adorn their small house and garden with Christmas ornaments, plastic toys, stuffed animals, found junk and hundreds of her own drawings and collages. She sewed eerily expressive dolls out of old stockings, with yarn wigs and elaborate outfits. She pulled and kneaded her used chewing gum into small, fierce figures that she hardened in her freezer, then painted in bright colors. ”I’m back to a child again,” she explained in a taped interview in the 1970’s. ”I’ve worked all my days. Now I want to play these other days out.”

Most of Rowe’s neighbors probably regarded her as a little odd; according to Mr. Brown, one or two called her ”an old hoodoo woman.” But in the 1970’s, art students and collectors of traditional folk art began turning their attention to living artists and craftsmen in the American countryside. What to others looked oddball to them looked like art.

It was a densely packed hodgepodge environment that would make your mouth fall open,” recalled Xenia Zed, a Georgia artist and arts administrator who first saw Rowe’s house in 1979. ”Everyone from architects to the local deliveryman would stop and stare, because it was an astounding creation.”

In 1978, Rowe was taken up by the dealer Judith Alexander, who in the 1950’s opened the first gallery in Atlanta to show work by Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists and who two decades later opened the city’s first gallery devoted to folk art. Thanks to Ms. Alexander, Rowe earned enough money to live comfortably in the final years of her life and gained access to higher-quality materials. After 1978, small crayon and pencil renderings, usually of single figures, sometimes of disembodied hands or feet, gave way to densely colored pastel, crayon and felt-tip pen drawings of fantastic plants, animals and human figures intertwined with abstract shapes and quiltlike patterning.

Her art was a sort of visual stream of consciousness that came into being unencumbered by plan, preconception or model. ”Whichever way my pencil turn, that’s what I draw,” Rowe told the documentary film maker Linda Connelly Armstrong in the 1970’s. ”I may start drawing a flower, but if it come to me I put an eye up over it or a nose or something and it’s going to look like a person, or I turn it over to a mule. I don’t know what it is till I finish it.”

Rowe died of cancer in 1982, and her house was dismantled and eventually torn down. A hotel now stands on the site. The only record of the outlandish, enchanting world she created is contained in a few photographs, a short film by Ms. Armstrong that will be on view as part of the exhibition, and the dolls and drawings that today exist only as individual artworks.

While Rowe’s Playhouse environment is generally regarded as a lost masterpiece, there’s less agreement about whether her sometimes childish, often inelegant works stand up on their own. ”Her work is whimsical and it’s light, but to me it’s not compelling,” said John Ollman, whose Philadelphia gallery specializes in self-taught art. ”There’s not a lot to separate her from the rest of the pack.”

Others say that Rowe’s creations merit serious critical attention, even if they don’t conform to standard esthetic criteria. ”People may be put off by the awkwardness of the drawing,” admits Peter Morrin, director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. ”But the power of the fantasy, and the way it casts all of creation as a plaything, a source of free invention — that’s an important contribution. She is the outsider Chagall, with the same qualities of invention and fantasy.”

According to the Folk Art Museum’s executive director, Gerard C. Wertkin, the Rowe exhibition underscores the importance of moving beyond narrow definitions of ”folk” and ”outsider” in order to do justice to some of the most interesting material by artists working far outside the mainstream art world.

”You need institutions and individuals who will seek out and study this work in order to bring it forward and have it appreciated,” he said. ”But there’s a growing sense that ‘folk art,’ because of the term’s emphasis on rootedness and deep connection with tradition, is not appropriate for work that’s highly idiosyncratic. And ‘outsider’ is hardly the word for work that’s created very much within the context of the artist’s culture.”

Hence the museum’s use of the term ”self-taught” for the work it will be gathering into its new Contemporary Center. A separate division within the museum devoted to 20th-century work, the center will embrace both contemporary folk art, which tends to appeal to traditional folk art enthusiasts, and outsider art, whose edginess attracts contemporary art fans. This month the museum is expected to announce major gifts to the center from museum trustees, running the gamut from American memory paintings to the works of institutionalized European psychotics.

Such inclusiveness creates the context in which an artist like Nellie Mae Rowe can be most fully appreciated, Mr. Wertkin contends. ”We’re not trying to expand the boundaries of outsider art,” he concluded. ”But we are trying to broaden the conversation.”