Engaging, lively, with almost infantile primitive traits that recall an unexpected beauty. An art that strikes, conquers and makes you dream, free from patterns, constraints. An Art Brut with warm and folk tones the art of Nellie Mae Rowe, a woman who for years could not reveal her brilliant and innate talent, imprisoned in social and existential conditions that time, friend and enemy, imposed and then frayed and transformed. Born in 1900 in Fayetteville, Georgia, Nellie was born into a peasant family, ninth of ten children. At an early age she started working in the fields collecting cotton with his father who ran a farm and rounded up his income as a blacksmith. Mama instead made quilts and clothes. Two artisan crafts, close to the creativity that Nellie discovered to love from an early age. Although it was difficult for her to find the time to cultivate her passions as soon as she could she created dolls and drew. The work in the fields was painful, poorly paid and not very dignified and so after the fourth grade to escape from this life she married a boy older than her, Ben Wheat. In 1930 the couple followed his relatives and moved to the rural area of Vinings. If at the beginning the marriage had appeared to Nellie preferable to field work she soon realized that life on the farm was probably better than life as a wife and housewife. When Ben died a few years later, Nellie lived with relatives for about a year until she remarried a local widower, much older than her, Henry Rowe. When he died in 1948 Nellie for the first time found herself free, without having to give an account to anyone. She had been a laborer on the fields then wife and maid but had never had time to devote to herself, to discover her identity. Now she had the chance to imagine herself in roles that were not already predefined by someone or imposed by society.
I was about sixteen when I ran away and got married. I should have stayed at home. I would have been better. Then I come here and get married again, Henry Rowe. I lived a good little life, and after his death, I said: “I’m not kidding anymore”.
“Don’t joke anymore” meant establishing an identity for Nellie Mae Rowe. She recognized the carefree quality of childhood, the freedom to create, improvise and play, as a necessary ingredient for her renewal” wrote about her art curator William Arnett.
After the death of her second husband she transformed her home into a play area decorated with the most varied objects she put in the front garden of the cottage where she lived. Life-size dolls and sculptures made of fabrics, threads and chewing gum that often stole them, hedges modeled in the shape of an animal. She was a self-taught artist with a predisposition to instinctively understand the relationship between form and color. In remembering the happiest days she recalls “a beautiful rock or a beautiful flower or an old broken plate”. What she found and it inspired her, she reused it as an element to give life to his “game house”.
Its courtyard overlooked an important residential area of Atlanta near the most exclusive neighborhoods of the city, inhabited by whites.
This did not prevent her from expressing her creativity freely. Ever more aware of who she was, she began to give full rein to what she had always dreamed to do: drawing and creating sculptures.
Also in the article published on the Souls Grown Deep website, art curator Arnett says that Rowe’s design had a slow evolution. Most of his works in the sixties and seventies consisted of little more than a single image, probably symbolic: a hand, a fish, an animal, a human face or a non embellished figure. Arnett notes that his vision, ambition, skill and complexity of his work have expanded during the last four years of his life. At that time Judith Alexander, a close friend of Nellie and art merchant, organized many exhibitions with her works helping to increase her confidence in her talent and enthusiasm to produce works. The public began to appreciate it. In 1981 she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and the following year she died. At that time his artistic production reached its peak. The awareness of not having an indefinite but very restricted time to live led Nellie to want to fully develop her artistic production. Reflecting on death gave even more meaning to her life. Rowe, now recognized as one of the most important folk artists, has left an artistic heritage of exceptional beauty. Her works is now exhibited in numerous collections, including the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, the Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City and the Studio Museum in Harlem.
His works focused on race, gender, domesticity, Afro-American folklore, spiritual traditions, childhood, the symbolism of vivid colors and primitive forms, hypnotize for its warmth. Nellie’s hand, her touch, overflows with a rare and unusual humanity, with an authentic soul, free from the chains of prejudice, the stereotype, a soul that embraces every time. To look at her paintings give joy and breath to the heart and offers the opportunity to reflect on the wonder of fully expressing your own uniqueness.