Artist

Nellie Mae Rowe

born Fayetteville, GA 1900-Vinings, GA 1982
Also known as
  • Nellie Mae Williams
Born
Fayetteville, Georgia, United States
Died
Vinings, Georgia, United States
Nationalities
  • American
Biography

Nellie Mae Rowe was born in Georgia, in the last year of the nineteenth century—to a once-enslaved father and mother born the year of Emancipation. Rowe labored as a child, married young, was widowed twice, and worked much of her adult life as a uniformed “domestic” in white households. Although her early life was shaped by segregation and oppression, Rowe’s desire to define herself sparked a joyful and colorful body of art that suffused her home and yard. This undeniable and contagious positivity made Rowe one of the first Black self-taught women to be celebrated for her art.

Rowe saw art-making as a God-given way to convey gratitude and recover a girlhood lost to labor and poverty. She transformed her property into an enriched realm she called her “Playhouse,” embellished with artworks and found objects that brought a heightened animation to her surroundings. Amid a society that rarely featured Black women in works of art and cast them as demeaning stereotypes in popular culture, Rowe took control of the narrative. She depicted friends, neighbors, and herself in drawings and hand-colored photographs, confident images of Black beauty and free-spirited joy. In a radical act of reclamation, she crafted a world where cultural pride, personal style, and a bit of the unexpected embody the richness of life.
(We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection, 2022)

Exhibitions

Media - 2016.38.43R-V - SAAM-2016.38.43R-V_2 - 126225
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection
July 1, 2022March 26, 2023
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection traces the rise of self-taught artists in the twentieth century and examines how, despite wide-ranging societal, racial, and gender-based obstacles, their creativity and bold self-definition became major forces in American art. The exhibition features recent gifts to the museum from two generations of collectors, Margaret Z. Robson and Douglas O. Robson.

Related Books

Cover for the catalogue "We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection"
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection traces the rise of self-taught artists in the twentieth century and examines how, despite wide-ranging societal, racial, and gender-based obstacles, their creativity and bold self-definition became major forces in American art. The exhibition features recent gifts to the museum from two generations of collectors, Margaret Z. Robson and her son Douglas O. Robson, and will be on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum July 1, 2022 through March 26, 2023.

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A photograph of Howard Kaplan on a plane.
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Nellie Mae Rowe Comic - Cover

Artist Nellie Mae Rowe stands at the doorway of her house. She’s a Black woman with curly dark brown hair, medium dark skin, and a genuine smile. She is wearing a long, green dress with short sleeves, a silver necklace, and flat black shoes. Above Nellie is white text against a red background with the title of the comic, “Playhouse.”  
Nellie stands at her doorstep and gestures with her right hand to invite the viewer into her artistic house. Just below her feet is more text, reading: “The Story of Nellie Mae Rowe.” Several items decorate her home and its lawn; dangling glass bottles and ornaments are strung together to frame the building. The front of her white house has small, lush green bushes adorned with ornaments. Dolls and mannequin heads also decorate the yard. On the left, one rests on the ground. It is brown with a tuft of yellow hair at the top and a smile on its face. Another mannequin stands tall, held up by a metal pole. It is brown with curly black hair and several colorful ornaments on its cone-shaped body. Sitting against the base of the rod is a doll that the artist made. The doll has brown skin, brown curly hair, and a beautiful pink and yellow dress. Scattered around the lawn are colorful glass bottles and potted plants.  

09/21/2022
Nellie Mae Rowe’s desire to define herself sparked a joyful and colorful body of art that suffused her home and yard.
A photograph of Howard Kaplan on a plane.
Howard Kaplan
Writer