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Four Elements

Nellie Mae Rowe

by Synatra Smith, Ph.D. on 2022-07-21T12:00:00-04:00 | 0 Comments

African American self-taught artist Nellie Mae Rowe was born July 4, 1900, in Fayette County, Georgia. She was raised on her father’s sharecropping farm, and she and her siblings were occasionally hired out to pick cotton in the neighbors’ fields. She began art-making as a child, learning from her mother how to make quilts, sculptures, dolls, and other objects. Rowe married Ben Wheat in 1916 at the age of sixteen to escape farm work, and they relocated to Vinings, Georgia, where she worked as a domestic. Wheat died in 1936, and Nellie Mae remarried Henry Rowe. They built a one-story cottage in Vinings, where she lived until her death. Henry died in 1948, after which Nellie Mae began devoting her time to making art, specifically dolls and paintings. 

Rowe referred to her front yard as her “playhouse,” where she made life-size dolls and chewing gum sculptures, both of which often got stolen, and trimmed her hedges to look like animals. Her playhouse was met with aggression and destruction by the community because it was indicative of her blended spiritual practice, which included Christian and African elements. Eventually, she began inviting people to view the objects in her yard while she played gospel music on an electric organ. She integrated image, text, and quiltlike patterns in her work and sometimes merged everyday scenes with fantasy. Rowe’s work often featured animals: dogs represented herself, and butterflies represented the resurrection of Jesus. Her work evolved greatly during the last four years of her life, as it shifted to reflect moments of her life that she wished had been happier. After she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1981, her focus shifted yet again, to death as the next step of her journey toward improved conditions. Rowe died on October 18, 1982, in Vinings, Georgia, from multiple myeloma. 

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Arnett, William. 2000. “Nellie Mae Rowe: Inside the Perimeter.” In The Tree Gave the Dove a Leaf, edited by Paul Arnett and William Arnett, 290–307. Vol. 1 of Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South. Atlanta: Tinwood Books.

Artnet. n.d. “Nellie Mae Rowe.” Accessed March 29, 2022.

Kogan, Lee. 1998. The Art of Nellie Mae Rowe: Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do. Exh. cat. New York: Museum of American Folk Art.

Maresca, Frank, Roger Ricco, and Lyle Rexer. 1993. “Nellie Mae Rowe.” In American Self-Taught: Paintings and Drawings by Outsider Artists, 199–202. New York: Knopf.
Studio Museum in Harlem. 1994. “Nellie Mae Rowe.” In The Studio Museum in Harlem: 25 Years of African-American Art, 42. Exh. cat. New York: Studio Museum in Harlem.

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