Nellie Mae Rowe

1900–1982

Self-taught artist Nellie Mae Rowe gained national fame in the last decade of her life after years spent making art in her free time.  

Born in Fayetteville, Georgia, Rowe spent most of her life in a farming community outside of Atlanta. The ninth of 10 children, she helped on the family’s rented farm even as a child. However, from an early age, she made dolls and sketched whenever she had a moment. Rowe married her first husband when she was 16. Working with him on a farm until his passing in 1936, she found little time to make art.

Following the death of her second husband in 1948, Rowe supported herself by working as a maid. She also significantly increased her artistic output . The prolific artist created drawings, dolls, chewing-gum sculptures, and assemblages made from cast-off objects, including egg cartons, marbles, and assorted trinkets. Artwork filled her yard and house, which she dubbed her “playhouse.” Although locals had long been aware of Rowe and her unique property, art collectors and curators first took notice in the mid-1970s. Wider recognition soon followed. 

Rowe’s first solo exhibition took place in 1978 at Alexander Gallery in Atlanta. The following year, she traveled outside Georgia for the only time in her life to view an exhibition of her work at the Parsons/Dreyfus Gallery in New York City. Suffering from cancer in 1982, Rowe was unable to attend the opening of the landmark exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In 1999, the Museum of American Folk Art organized a retrospective of Rowe’s art, which traveled to NMWA in summer 1999. 

National Museum of Women in the Arts