During the last decade and a half of her life, Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982) lived on a busy thoroughfare just outside of Atlanta, Georgia and welcomed visitors to her “Playhouse,” which she decorated with found-object installations, handmade dolls, chewing-gum sculptures, and hundreds of drawings. Based on the High’s leading collection of Rowe’s art, this exhibition of about 50 works is the first to consider her practice as a radical act of self-expression and liberation in the post-Civil Rights era South.
Rowe created her first works as a child in rural Fayetteville, Georgia but only found the time and space to reclaim her artistic practice in the late 1960s, following the deaths of her second husband and longtime employer. As the first major exhibition on the artist in more than 20 years, Really Free will offer an unprecedented view of how Rowe cultivated her drawing practice late in life, starting with colorful, at times simple sketches on found materials in the 1960s and moving toward her most celebrated highly complex compositions on paper of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Through photographs and scenes from an experimental documentary on her life, which included an artful reconstruction of her Playhouse, visitors will experience the lively art environment she created in and outside of her home. Other sections of the show will explore themes in her work such as her depictions of women and her experimentation with materials, including her recycling of cast offs into her handmade dolls and dimensional drawings.
Above: Nellie Mae Rowe (American, 1900–1982), Untitled (Woman with Butterfly Wing), 1980, crayon and marker on paper, 16 x 20 inches, High Museum of Art, gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.210. © 2022 Estate of Nellie Mae Rowe/High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
Right: Melinda Blauvelt (American, born 1949), Nellie Mae Rowe, Vinings, Georgia, 1971, printed 2021, gelatin silver print, 21 3/4 x 14 5/8 inches, High Museum of Art, gift of the artist, 2021.69. © 2022 Melinda Blauvelt.
As the first major exhibition on the artist in more than 20 years, Really Free will offer an unprecedented view of how Rowe cultivated her drawing practice late in life, starting with colorful sketches on found materials and moving toward her most celebrated highly-complex compositions on paper.
Organized by High Museum of Art and curated by Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art.
Support for this exhibition was provided in part by a grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.