The conversation regarding the labeling of artists such as Nellie Mae Rowe ("Folk Artist"? "Naive Artist"?) is addressed at this early date.
By W.C. Burnett, Journal Arts Editor
December 14, 1978
Nellie Mae Rowe’s drawings are so expressive of her interests and her joy in art that it is hard to see how her work could fail to communicate with almost everyone.
Mrs. Rowe has lived in the same small Vinings house since 1930; she was born in that area in 1900, and many of the things she saw and felt in the early years are occasional subjects for her drawings.
One of her pictures deals with a horse that ran away many years ago. She remembers her brother returning from hunting during that same period, so she shows him at the side of the picture.
She hadn’t thought of those things for many years, but they came back to her as she was drawing.
She starts at a random spot on a piece of paper, draws a line and it becomes something — a person, a horse, a house. Other things associated with that object crowd in on her memory and she gives them form.
Mrs. Rowe is, according to popular usage, a “folk artist”. But that term is questioned by many critics and scholars because she is one of those artists who produces work which is unique but not necessarily patterned by folk customs, as are baskets, quilts and utilitarian objects. It would be more correct to term her a “naive artist,” for she produces her work without benefit of formal training, or without even much exposure to other art. She recently visited the High Museum for the first time at the instigation of her gallery owner, Judith Alexander. Mrs. Rowe was impressed by other people’s work but not awed.
Mrs. Rowe’s husband died in 1948, and she has been alone for the past 30 years. Well, almost alone, She makes dolls, which she regards with great affection, and she makes “sculptures” from chewing gum and other materials. Her reputation for those pursuits has spread and people like to visit her, see her latest creations, and hear her sing gospel hymns and spirituals and play her organ.
Her drawings weren’t so well know, but Anna Wadsworth included several examples of Mrs. Rowe’s work in an exhibit titled “Missing Pieces,” which she organized for the Georgia Council for the arts and which was exhibited at the Atlanta Historical Society and other sites in Georgia and finally at the Library of Congress.
Mrs. Rowe doesn’t actually paint pictures. She expresses herself primarily through linear images, so she uses pencils, felt-tipped markers, oil pastels and ordinary crayons.
Although she fills all of the spaces in her pictures, they have such consistent organization they don’t seem “crowded.” It is a pleasure to search out such things as small birds, figures, animals and other things among the main figures.
Some pictures have social interpretations. She often uses an uplifted hand to symbolize the hope for peace. In one such picture the outline of the hand is flanked by a figure of Coretta Scott King. At the top of the picture are voters. On the other side of the hand is a masked figure symbolizing a politician running for office.
This is an exhibit which should rate a high priority for a visit. Mrs. Rowe’s work is being shown at the Alexander Gallery, recently opened by Judith Alexander at 442 E. Paces Ferry Road N.E. The exhibit will continue for an unspecified period and is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 until 5 p.m.