ExhibitionsReally Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe
Past Exhibition

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe

September 3, 2021 – January 9, 2022

Traveling Exhibition Dates:
Springfield Museum of Art: March 19, 2022–July 1, 2022
Hunter Museum: January 27–May 1, 2023

During the last fifteen years of her life, Nellie Mae Rowe (1900–1982) lived on Paces Ferry Road, a major thoroughfare in Vinings, 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, Really Free is the first major exhibition of her work in more than twenty years and 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 her longtime employer.

The exhibition offers an unprecedented view of how she cultivated her drawing practice late in life, starting with colorful and at times simple sketches on found materials and moving toward her most celebrated, highly complex compositions on paper. Through photographs and reconstructions of her Playhouse created for an experimental documentary on her life, the exhibition is also the first to put her drawings in direct conversation with her art environment.

This exhibition is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

Banner Image: Nellie Mae Rowe (American, 1900–1982), When I Was a Little Girl, 1978, crayon, oil pastel, marker, colored pencil, and pencil on paper, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with Folk Art Acquisition Fund, 2002.73. © Nellie Mae Rowe.

Untitled (Really Free!), 1967–1976

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
Untitled (Really Free!), 1967–1976
Marker and crayon on book page
Gift of Judith Alexander, 2002.239Rowe was a deeply spiritual person who believed that God had bestowed her with artistic abilities, saying, “This the talent that he gave me and I have to use it.” She hung onto the frontispiece of Really Free!, a pamphlet reproducing the Gospel according to John and printed by the Bible Society in 1967, transforming it with her elegant signature. The way that she envelopes the phrase “Really Free!” with her name makes this relatively simple work, which inspired the title of this exhibition, a bold statement about how she expressed her personal freedom through art in the final years of her life.

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Real Girl, 1980

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
Real Girl, 1980
Color photograph, crayon, pen, and pencil on cardboard
Gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.212Real Girl is one of at least a dozen drawings in which Rowe embedded a picture of herself, embracing various visible dimensions of her identity and their intersections. As she told one reporter in 1979, “I am black and I love my blackness.” Here, she has placed her signature at the literal heart of her composition under an image of herself in front of her home holding a doll. She asserts that she is a “real girl” and uses traditionally feminine forms like the color bright pink, lacy edges, flowers, and the heart arabesque to complete this valentine to herself.

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When I Was a Little Girl, 1978

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
When I Was a Little Girl, 1978
Crayon, marker, colored pencil, and pencil on paper
Purchase with Folk Art Acquisition Fund, 2002.73Rowe captures the thwarted artistic efforts of her childhood through a series of vignettes in this work: one version of herself as a child floats across the composition, attaching drawings to the walls of her bedroom. Because her homemade adhesive attracted rats, Rowe was punished, and her mother can be seen holding a reed in one hand and a sweet fruit for her daughter in the other at the picture’s center. One of the dolls that Rowe made from dirty laundry appears at right, waiting to be played with and ultimately undone on wash day.

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My house is Clean Enought to Be healty and it dirty Enought to Be happy, 1978–1982

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
My house is Clean Enought to Be healty and it dirty Enought to Be happy, 1978–1982
Crayon and pencil on paper
Gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.146“I kept house long enough, I don’t want to be bothered by nobody ’cept self,” was how Rowe put her decision not to marry for a third time nor to seek further employment as a domestic worker. She got a kick out of household goods that cleverly and joyfully articulated the easing of domestic duties, like a napkin she saw at her niece’s that bore the phrase that is the title of this work.

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What it is, 1978–1982 

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
What it is, 1978–1982
Crayon, colored pencil, and pencil on paper
Gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.215Rowe visualizes herself as a child, confidently walking down Paces Ferry Road, her ribbons forming a kind of halo as she goes. “What it is” is a popular greeting—akin to “What’s up?”—but Rowe also used it as an artistic statement that reflected the mysteries she was content to let remain unsolved in her work. “Most of the things that I draw, I don’t know what they are by name. People say, ‘Nellie, what is that?’ I say I don’t know, it is what it is. That is all I know. But I know one thing, I draw what is in my mind.”

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Untitled (Chewing-Gum Sculpture), before 1978

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
Untitled (Chewing-Gum Sculpture), before 1978
Chewing gum, plastic flowers, marker, plastic beads, and hair on trivet
Gift of Judith Alexander, 2001.7Chewing gum was a way Rowe had been advised to treat ongoing headaches, which she called “the jumping in her head”; she kept what was left over, kneaded it into creature shapes, and chilled them in the freezer. Their once minty smell is something that artist Betye Saar, who visited Rowe after seeing one of her works at the California Museum of Art and Craft in the late 1970s, still remembers.

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Untitled (Something that Ain’t Been Born Yet), 1978

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
Untitled (Something that Ain’t Been Born Yet), 1978
Crayon and pencil on ledger paper
Gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.218For inspiration, Rowe tapped into her subconscious in ways that the Surrealists had given credence to decades earlier, copying visions as she remembered them from her dreams and engaging in automatic drawing. As she described it, “I may make a start with a straight mark, and it will come to me what I want to make.” The way she followed her line into mysterious forms, testing whether they could become a tree, an animal, an elaborately dressed person, can be seen clearly in this work’s detailed but fluid composition.

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Untitled (The Angel and the Devil’s Boot), 1978

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
Untitled (The Angel and the Devil’s Boot), 1978
Crayon, pen, and pencil on cardboard
Bequest of Harvie and Charles Abney

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Untitled (Atlanta’s Missing Children, Figure with Headdress), 1981

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
Untitled (Atlanta’s Missing Children, Figure with Headdress), 1981
Crayon, gouache, pen, and pencil on paper
Gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.213Rowe’s connection with childhood and her longing for children of her own might have played a role in her decision to depict the Atlanta Child Murders—a series of abductions and violent attacks of nearly thirty people (most of them Black children or adolescents) that took place between 1979 and 1981 in Atlanta. As opposed to visually depicting these murders, Rowe addressed the violence in code, using animals and indeterminate vignettes. The figure in the center of the drawing menacingly pulling back a trench-coat-like cape like a flasher may be a more direct reference to the sexual abuse that many of the victims suffered.

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Untitled (Nellie and Judith’s Houses), 1978–1982

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
Untitled (Nellie and Judith’s Houses), 1978–1982
Crayon, marker, and pencil on paper
Gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.209These conjoined houses signify how the destinies of Rowe and her gallerist Judith Alexander were mutually dependent. Alexander had been showing contemporary art for decades, but her close relationship with Rowe led her to become one of the South’s only gallerists dedicated to self-taught artists. The way these houses appear stitched together seemed to inspire the poetic words of Rowe’s great-grandniece Cheryl Mashack at Alexander’s 2005 funeral: “Some of our paths would have never crossed, but there was a plan and a purpose orchestrated from above and thus began the construction of a beautifully made quilt.”

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Untitled (Blue and Pink Doll), before 1978

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
Untitled (Blue and Pink Doll), before 1978
Cloth, yarn, fiber stuffing, acrylic wig, and buttons
Gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.243Rowe’s earlier memories of making art included the dolls she created for the amusement of herself and her siblings. This doll is atypical, standing apart from the others seen in the show, because of how she crocheted its body. The indigo-blue yarn and magenta fabric she chose for it matches the vibrant color schemes she favored in her later drawing.

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Untitled (Nellie Riding Chicken), 1980

Nellie Mae Rowe
American, 1900–1982
Untitled (Nellie Riding Chicken), 1980
Crayon and pencil on paper
Gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.211Wearing green, a signature color in her wardrobe, Rowe rides a chicken toward a form that exemplifies how she married human, plant, and animal life in her work. Its facial features comprise the components of a tree: roots and low limbs form its beard and mustache, while budding branches create its eyes and hair. This peculiar face rests on a neck stacked with Star Trek–reminiscent chevrons, lending it an extraterrestrial air that befits Rowe’s belief in her drawings as emissaries of an unknown future—“things that ain’t been seen” or “something that ain’t been born yet,” as she put it.

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LINK Digital Archive

Graphic showing the Nellie Mae Rowe LINK archive pulled up on an ipad.

Take a deep dive into the High’s new LINK digital archive on Nellie Mae Rowe. Learn about Rowe’s life and artwork through interactive content, including archival materials, videos, and a historical timeline. Plus, explore the exhibition Really Free online with high resolution images and exhibition texts organized by theme.

The Nellie Mae Rowe LINK archive is the first in a new series of innovative digital publications focused on works from the High’s permanent collection.


Atlanta Magazine | “Works by folk artist Nellie Mae Rowe contemplate faith, feminism, and freedom”
The Magazine ANTIQUES
 | “Wandering Eye: Self-Taught Geniuses and a Coke from Norman Rockwell”
Forbes | “High Museum Of Art Elevates Legacy Of Nellie Mae Rowe With Overdue Exhibition Re-Framing Her Work As ‘Radical’”
Atlanta Journal Constitution | “Nellie Mae Rowe, Atlanta visionary artist, in High Museum show”
The Magazine ANTIQUES | “Art of Joy at the High”
Atlanta Journal Constitution | “Fall A&E Guide: 10 fall events you don’t want to miss”
NPR, “Museum Confidential” | “The Outsiders?”
Antiques & The Arts Weekly | “Q&A: Katherine Jentleson”
Artnet News | “Here Are the 13 U.S. Museum Shows That Matter This Fall, From a Survey of 21st-Century Feminisms in Berkeley to a Radical Art Rediscovery in Atlanta”
The New York Times | “Fall Preview: These Are the Art Shows and Events to See This Season”
ArtsATL | “‘Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe’ an exquisite undertaking”
Atlanta Journal Constitution | “Artwork of Black folk artist at High Museum”
Artnet News | “An Exhibition in Atlanta Pays Tribute to the Late Artist Nellie Mae Rowe, a Self-Taught Visionary Whose Imagination ‘Exploded Onto Paper’”
Burnaway | “Real Girl: Nellie Mae Rowe at High Museum, Atlanta”
Forbes | “Self-Taught Artists Take Center Stage At High Museum Of Art In Atlanta, With Nellie Mae Rowe In Spotlight”
Art Papers | “Katherine Jentleson: Whose History of American Art?”
Artforum | “The Artists’ Artists: Twenty-Three Artists Reflect on 2021”
The New York Times | “Best Art Exhibitions of 2021”
The New York Times | “Best Art Books of 2021”
Bookforum | “Artful Volumes: The season’s outstanding art books”

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
Generous support for the national tour of Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe is provided by the Art Bridges Foundation.
This exhibition is made possible by

Major Funding

The High Museum of Art is pleased to acknowledge The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for its generous support of the exhibition and publication.

Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor

Exhibition Series Sponsor

Premier Exhibition Series Supporters

Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Dr. Joan H. Weens Estate

Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporters

Anne Cox Chambers Foundation
Robin and Hilton Howell

Ambassador Exhibition Supporters

The Antinori Foundation
Corporate Environments
Elizabeth and Chris Willett

Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters

Farideh and Al Azadi
Sandra and Dan Baldwin
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
Helen C. Griffith
Mrs. Fay S. Howell/The Howell Fund
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
The Arthur R. and Ruth D. Lautz Charitable Foundation
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Dr. Joe B. Massey
Margot and Danny McCaul
Wade Rakes and Nicholas Miller
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund
In Memory of Elizabeth B. Stephens by Powell Stephens, Preston Stephens, and Sally Stephens Westmoreland
USI Insurance Services
Mrs. Harriet H. Warren

Generous support is also provided by

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.