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)