Press: Nellie Mae Rowe

Museums Celebrate the Black Women Artists History Has Overlooked

See their work. Know their names. Learn their stories.


By Priscilla Frank, Arts and Culture Reporter
The Huffington Post, February 20, 2017 (Updated February 24, 2017)

On the first day of Black History Month, the good people at Google blessed the internet with a doodle honoring Edmonia Lewis, the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to earn global recognition as a fine arts sculptor.

Lewis, who grew up while slavery was still legal in the United States, became known for her hand-carved, marble sculptures of influential abolitionists and mythological figures. In part because Lewis made all of her sculptures by hand, few originals or duplicates remain intact today. She died in relative obscurity in 1907, and, to this day, remains lesser known than many of her white, male contemporaries. 

This well-deserved tribute to Lewis got us thinking about the other black women artists whose contributions to the history of art have been similarly overlooked or undervalued. So we reached out to museums across the country, asking which artists past and present deserve our attention, too. Continue reading the article

8. Nellie Mae rowe

Nellie Mae Rowe, “Untitled (Two Figures and Animal,”

Vinings, Georgia, 1979–1980, 

crayon, felt-tip marker, and oil pastel on paper, 15 × 11”

Shared courtesy The American Folk Art Museum

Nellie Mae Rowe was born in rural Georgia, one of nine daughters. Her father, a former slave, worked as a blacksmith and basket weaver; her mother made quilts and clothes. She married at 16 and, when her husband passed away, married another widower  36. When he died, Rowe was 48 years old and began a new life as an independent woman and an artist. 


Rowe referred to her blossoming interest in art as a chance to re-experience childhood. She began to adorn the exterior of her house, which called the “playhouse,” with stuffed animals, life-sized dolls, animal-shaped hedges and sculptures made of chewing gum. 


Along with her installations, Rowe created vibrant and flat drawings from humble materials like crayon, cardboard and felt-tip markers. Her images normally consisted of humans and animals swallowed by colorful, abstract designs and often referenced personal struggles in her own life. When she was diagnosed with cancer in 1981, Rowe channeled her emotions into her work, grappling with her changing body and attitudes towards death through bold, symbolic imagery. 


I feel great being an artist,” Rowe famously said. “I didn’t even know that I would ever become one. It is just surprising to me."

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