Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe

Brooklyn Rail 2022

We need to think about time and place. When Nellie Mae Rowe settled in the village of Vinings, it was a rural community twenty minutes northwest of Atlanta. Desegregation happened in various waves that occurred here between 1961 and 1973. Blockbusting, forced-housing patterns were outlawed, allowing Black citizens to own homes “in town.” Prominent neighborhoods went from white to Black in a blink, as 60,000 white residents (20 percent of the population) turned rural hamlets into affluent suburbs. Rowe’s home and studio sat in the middle of the developing town and became a conspicuous local attraction. Around 400 visitors a year would tour her home, see her art, and sign her guest book.  

It was an unlikely road for an artist born July 4, 1900, in Fayetteville, Georgia. Rowe’s father was born into slavery; her mother was born a year after the Emancipation Proclamation. After fourth grade, Rowe left formal schooling to join her family working in the fields. Nellie Mae married Buddy Rowe, and together they lived in a three-room house he built at 2015 Paces Ferry Road. Rowe worked as a domestic for a local white family for thirty years. When they passed in the 1960s, she was finally unencumbered by the monotony of household labor. In 1968 her house became a fully functional work of art that would henceforth be known as the “Playhouse.”

The clapboard house was small, almost teetering on to itself from all sides. The paint was sun-faded. And the grass that never grew became the enchanted forest that surrounds the home and stole the show. In believing that her art was a method of achieving communion with God, Rowe never let the joy slip away from her creations. Jovial people, quirky beasts, and frothing florals fill her imaginary kingdom. Memory mixed with enchanted symbolism flood each work. 

What it is (1978–82) shows Rowe, depicted as a child, confidently strolling hands-on-hips down Paces Ferry Road, a one-woman parade—joined by a cadre of yellow, green, and white dogs, markers of protection. Her yellow and blue hair ribbons extend up, creating a crown of rays, bringing light to her community. The seventies phrase “What it is?” was a rhetorical greeting, similar to its contemporary equivalent, “What’s up?” Two floating white-faced onlookers gawk, one simple, delighted, the other less than pleased. Rowe pays no mind. That greeting is also a statement—a declaration of her presence and confidence in her spiritual being.  

Rowe was not shy about using her art to comment on social and political issues of the day. Untitled (Voting), (pre-1978), is a tribute to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests and thus is seen as a significant moment of Black enfranchisement. The piece is composed of three central vignettes. On the left is an outstretched praise hand, accepting joy. Beside the hand is a smiling Coretta Scott King. The right side of the piece shows the face of a politician, his frenzied eyes and pearly white bucktoothed grin obscured only by what appears to be several layers of transparent masks. You never know which one is talking. Scrawled across the top, big and bold, she wrote her name. Interspersed through the signature is a series of voters waiting in line, some bowing their heads, shedding tears for a day they never thought they’d see. 

From 1979 to 1981, nearly thirty Black children and young adults were abducted and murdered in Atlanta. Collectively known as the “Atlanta child murders,” the killings drew the nation’s attention and altered daily life in the city. In Untitled (Atlanta’s Missing Children, Figure with Headdress) (1981), Rowe portrayed the perpetrator as big, blond, and scary. His brown trench coat pulled open like a flasher, a flamboyant headdress sticking straight up, peacocking, mocking would-be authorities. Dough-faced animals, innocent and childlike, surround him. Around the drawing, Rowe placed five blue charms, amulets for protection, a symbol in many southern African American homes used to repel evil spirits. 

Back in Atlanta, I drove to Vinings to see what had become of the Playhouse. Just past Cold Stone Creamery, 2015 Paces Ferry is now a Hotel Indigo, the national chain. There is a small section dedicated to Rowe off the lobby, with one of her drawings and several pictures of the home that once stood here. “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies blared through the lobby sound system. It is a stark reminder of Rowe’s front seat watching a city transform. The revival of the KKK, the fight for civil rights, forced integration, white flight, unprecedented sprawl. The ground constantly shifted under her feet. And there was Nellie Mae Rowe, a Black woman living in the South, declaring that she was forever an artist. Her work dazzles at every turn, but make no mistake; beneath Rowe’s playfulness there is bravery we seldom see on museum walls.