Approximately 95 drawings, collages, and sculptures by Nellie Mae Rowe are on display at NMWA from June 3 through September 12, 1999. The Art of Nelly Mae Rowe: ‘Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do,” (a line from one of Rowe’s favorite gospel songs) is the first major touring exhibition of the work of this self-taught artist.
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. She called this environment her “playhouse.”
What began as a 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.