Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Nellie Mae Rowe: Making Something Out of Nothing

Photo Credit: Souls Grow Deep Foundation
Nellie Mae Rowe was known for creating imaginative works of art. Her sculptures made of found objects and drawings were inspired by her faith in God, by current events and by African American narrative traditions.

Rowe was born in 1900 in Fayetteville, Ga., but lived in Vinings. Her father had previously been enslaved, and her mother was born after emancipation. Both of Rowe’s parents were creative. Her mother was an expert quilter, and her father was a basket weaver. They both encouraged Rowe in her art. When she was a child, she would lie down on the floor and draw every chance she got.

She did not always have supporters as encouraging as her parents. After her second husband died, in 1948, people would tear Rowe’s fence down, throw things at her house and destroy her property. She told Maude Wahlman and Judith Alexander in the early 1980s that she would make “old weavings . . . make the eyes on them, make the big popeyes. They thought I was a hoodoo or something like that. I put up wig heads. I put the wig on them and sometimes have a shawl hanging on it. From here look like a person sit up in the tree.”

After she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1981, Rowe increased her art output. She believed that she had been given this artistic talent by God, and she wanted to prove to Jesus that she was worthy of it. She considered her art to be a connection to and a way to honor God. She would draw people and ask the Lord to help them. Drawing, for her, was almost akin to praying.

Rowe was also inspired by current events. Between 1979 and 1981, more than 20 Atlanta-area children were sexually molested and murdered, allegedly by Wayne Williams. Rowe created several drawings on the subject because she believed they would protect the children. Her 1981 work “Atlanta’s Missing Children” features five charms and the color blue, traditionally used to ward off evil spirits in the homes of southern African Americans.

Her work was featured in a gallery for the first time in 1976, in the Atlanta History Center’s exhibition “Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art 1770–1976.” Her first solo exhibition was held two years later at the Alexander Gallery in Atlanta. She quickly garnered national recognition. Her first exhibition outside of Georgia was at the Parsons/Dreyfuss Gallery in New York City.

Rowe primarily used simple materials to create her art, like crayons and found objects. She told Wahlman and Alexander that she “[took] nothing, you know, [took] nothing and [made] something out of it.”

Rowe’s drawing “Foot with Deer” is part of the Georgia Museum of Art’s permanent collection. The museum also owns “Flower,” a crayon piece, and “Doll,” which is made from cloth, thread and found objects.

Currently, these works are not on display in the museum’s permanent collection galleries, partially because their fragile materials cannot be exposed to light for long periods. Many of Rowe’s works can also be found at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which owns more than 100 of her drawings.

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