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"The Intensely Colored, Symbolically Imaginative Work of Self-Taught Artist Nellie Mae Rowe"
1999-06-03 until 1999-09-12
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Washington, DC, USA United States of America

The exhibition traces the development of Rowe's art and positions her work within both the Southern vernacular and African-American culture. Rowe created a world of symbols that were combined with commonplace objects. Her work unites memories and dreams in visions of humans, animals, houses, and plants that defy gravity. The artist herself often appears in disguise as a dog, mule, seductress, or butterfly.

Rowe (1900-1982) lived all her life in rural Georgia, the last 50 years in Vinings, northwest of Atlanta. She created art from earliest childhood, drawing on scraps of paper and cardboard, and twisting the family's laundry into doll shapes. She first married at 16, was widowed twice, and worked for three decades as a domestic. After the death of her second husband in 1948, she began to decorate her house and yard with her own artistic creations vibrant, color-saturated works on paper; paintings; photographic collages; chewing-gum figures; polychrome three-dimensional objects; and hand-sewn dolls and called this environment her playhouse.

What began as curiosity by a few passers-by, some of whom thought her work was inspired by magic, developed into hundreds of visitors coming to view Rowe's work. (The house has since been demolished to make way for a hotel; only a plaque remains.) In 1978, Atlanta contemporary art dealer Judith Alexander began to represent Rowe, helping her earn a stable income as an artist. She died in 1982 after a remarkable two-year burst of creativity. Rowe's work alternates between single-figured works and multi-figured narrative compositions. Between 1972 and 1982, she produced complex drawings laden with organic forms, symbolic nuance, linear rhythms, and sumptuous color harmonies. Her most expressive media were simple materials such as cardboard, paper, graphite and colored pencil, ballpoint pen, and felt-tip marker. She worked constantly and on every available surface, from pressed-paper trays to Styrofoam packing materials.

Atlanta's Missing Children (1981) was inspired by the period when more than 20 children from that city were molested and murdered. The work features a woman/bird hybrid in a striped headdress with an intense expression and small clawlike appendages, along with protective charms. While Rowe was a devout Christian, this drawing, with its references to the magical powers of conjurers, clearly was intended to ward off the perpetrator and protect the children.

Rowe's home was near the intersection of two interstates, and Pig on Expressway (1980) captures the spirit of agrarian rural life intersecting with modern technology. The road, with its undulating bands of bright color like a free-form quilt pattern, provides a lively view of the modern world, juxtaposed with the solidity of the heavy pig caught in an absurd situation in the middle.

Dogs, a predominant subject of Rowe's final years, are sometimes used as a metaphor to express her many moods as she faced death. The expressions on the dogs' faces in drawings made in 1981 and 1982 shift from surprise to worry and finally to resignation. Texts contained in the dog drawings include I am Worrie, I Might Not Come Back, and I'm Own the Wrong Road.

The Art of Nellie Mae Rowe: Ninety-Nine and a Half Won't Do was organized by Lee Kogan for the Museum of American Folk Art. Following the NMWA exhibition, it will travel to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA (Nov. 20, 1999 - Feb. 26, 2000) and to the African American Museum in Dallas, TX (March 18 - May 14, 2000).


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