by Josephine Rudd & Kara Thompson
Nellie Mae Rowe was an African-American self-taught folk artist born on Independence Day in 1900. The majority of her artwork was created in the latter half of the 20th century. After the death of her second husband, Rowe experienced a liberation of identity and sought to express her ideas through art, a path that was for once “different from those defined for her by [her family or her husbands]” (Arnett). Her work was inventive, intricate, and profoundly colorful, focusing on themes of race, gender, and spirituality. Critics generally categorize her work under folk art, though others call it self-taught art or “outsider art”; however, her style is also recognized as a combination of all three. This nonconformity is an aspect under scrutiny by Rowe’s critics, since they consequently view her work as “childish” or “inelegant” due to her use of crayons and found objects (DeCarlo).
Initially, Rowe did not create art for any reason besides personal expression; she displayed it in her “playhouse” — the name she gave to her home to reflect her playful character and motives — for herself. Even more, her neighbors initially reacted negatively towards her work, even going as far as to destroy a few pieces and break windows (Jefferson). Despite this, over the years, many visitors took interest in her creations; Judith Alexander was the most significant to Rowe of these visitors, and they became friends thereafter. Rowe’s first exhibition was Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art 1770-1976 in 1976; her second was at the Alexander Gallery in 1978; and her first solo exhibition was at the Parsons/Dreyfuss Gallery in New York just a year later (Klacsmann). Alexander advanced Rowe’s career by providing art materials and publicity; after Rowe’s death, Alexander donated nearly 130 of her pieces to the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, which established the institution as the largest collection of Rowe’s work and a key proponent of continuing Rowe’s legacy (“Judith Alexander Foundation”).
Historical and Cultural Context
Post-slavery America had a lasting influence on Rowe’s pieces. Her own life experiences, those of her father, and incidents at the time all provide inspiration for Rowe. One of her paintings, Picking Cotton, shares a more obvious connection to the afterlives of slavery. Through this piece, Rowe reveals her dislike for manual labor — an activity she engaged in throughout her childhood on her father’s own farm. Furthermore, the situation depicted in it — an African American woman in the field and a white “master” watching over her — parallels slavery. While Rowe herself was not a slave, her father was; he would recount his experiences with the institution to a young Rowe. She could not help but see how slaves were treated just like livestock on a farm:
“‘Wasn’t that pitiful? Sell them. Sell them. You know, a good stock. I had my daddy. He’s telling me. He said, like getting a good stock of hogs or a good stock of cows… They’d pick out the good stock… and they’d put them together so they’d have healthy childrens. Just like you do stock marriage’” (Arnett). This connection combined with her love of nature led to the ubiquity of animal motifs featured in her art. After she gained more fame, some of her pieces became inspired by local events and took on specific audiences. Between 1979 and 1981, many African American children were being abducted and killed, a period in time that became known as the Atlanta Child Murders. Atlanta’s Missing Children, an image from 1981, depicts charms that pray for the safety of Atlanta’s youth and serves as a warning to the living children to be vigilant (Arnett).
Folk art and self-taught art are styles that have been long ingrained in human society, though the actual terms are relatively new. Rowe’s creations are recognized as bridging both these categories. Folk art is a regionally-developed craft tailored to local tastes and preferences and is often distinct from what would be considered upper class or professional art. Heavily rooted in traditions, folk art can evolve dramatically with location. European folk art only gained recognition as a style in the late 1800’s and became entwined with the Romantic Era. Also unlike traditional gallery-displayed pieces, folk art was ephemeral, either made for ceremonies, practical use, or family tradition (Harmon). Rowe’s pieces, especially her dolls and sculptures, follow this specific aspect since they were made for entertainment and were not intended to appear in a gallery. However, Rowe’s work is also classified as self-taught art, since she had no formal training. Her experience was built upon her childhood desires for creativity, which resurged after being freed of the duties expected of a domestic. Self-taught art is a diverse category. There is overlap between folk and self-taught art since both are regarded as the opposite of professional commissioned art (Jentleson). The use of the terms “self-taught” and “folk” also serve to highlight the artist’s background and foster an impression of being relatable across all audiences, no matter the gender, race, or socioeconomic status.
During the late 20th century, African American folk art became more popularized, a result of the Civil Rights Movement and the increased interest in the cultures of marginalized groups. While some were hesitant to actually place her work at the same level of “conventional” art, many viewers became enamored with her fantastical style. However, this transition from creating art to be displayed only in her “playhouse” to creating art to be displayed in national galleries took three decades; furthermore, she spent a mere six years of her life in the metaphorical spotlight of the art world (Jefferson). Black folk artists during the mid to late 1900’s encountered many hurdles on their roads to success. Critics would complain that their work was either too “primitive” or not “visionary” enough to fall into the narrow realm of acceptance. Much of the popular appeal for a black self-taught artist laid in that artist’s lack of official art training, thus his or her work provided an “authentic” perspective into the African American experience. It is likely that this ability to be “consumable” to the larger white audience led to success for some artists (Conwill). Similar to society as a whole, the art world provided yet another a challenge to African American artists. Interestingly, Rowe herself was unsuspecting of her potential: “‘I didn’t even know that I would ever come to be an artist’” (DeCarlo).
Themes and Styles
At the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, is a small collection of Rowe’s work on display in the folk and self-taught art gallery in the Stent Family Wing. Though small, the impact of her work, with the vibrant hues, bold figures, and “explosions of color…like fables” (“Profile…”) hits viewers with questions of race and gender. For example, the piece Nellie in her Garden is almost autobiographical in nature; in it, we see a black woman trimming a bush while a white woman looks on, presumably supervising the work of her hired hand. As Arnett discusses, each piece of Rowe’s work has a specific purpose; even the mule on the middle left-hand side represents the “workhorse” attitude African Americans were expected to have. The circles underneath her feet could be interpreted as rugs that represent domesticity, while the bush, agriculture. The duality of these two symbols reflect Rowe’s background of farming and the broader roles in the past of African American women as homemakers and wives of sharecroppers. At the time of creation and in modern times, these roles translate into the typical low-paying, generally unskilled jobs associated with both women and African Americans as a whole.
Rowe’s use of animal motifs furthers her argument that African Americans in the aftermath of slavery were treated no better than animals. In another crayon drawing, Pig on Expressway, lines of various patterns and lengths center around the focal point of a brown pig with birds in the background.. Rowe copiously drew animals, partially because of her childhood on a farm, and partially because she saw the people around her working as hard as animals to provide for themselves and their families. This theme of toiling agriculturally without much profit is a recurring theme from slavery’s days, brought forward to highlight racial job segregation from Jim Crow to modern times. The pig itself represents “‘an antebellum economic necessity’” (Kenny) in terms of Southern culture; like slaves themselves, pigs were brought over on ships from the Old to New World and forced to adapt as the lower tier of the economy. Furthermore, pigs were seen as generally dirty animals, and according to Biblical symbolism, unclean. Similarly, white slave owners used parallel images and other biblical references to dehumanized slaves and justify black enslavement. Even in modern times, African Americans receive sub-par treatment as a consequence of this legacy. Finally, here Rowe’s color choice of a brown pig contrasts with its complementary color: white. According to Kenny, “the term ‘white hog’ is a readily recognizable regional cultural stereotype” against whites. In essence, Rowe subtly alludes to a race conflict with her color choice. In this one picture, Rowe connects issues and themes of racism, Christianity, and agriculture to the afterlives of slavery.
Compared to other African American artists such as Kara Walker, Rowe’s work includes more variety of colors. This is reflective of her self-taught folk artist roots; without a formal artistic training, she was free to experiment with a variety of unconventional medium such as crayon. In contrast to Walker’s style of blunt black and white silhouettes (“Walker Art Center”), Rowe’s use of vibrant primary and secondary colors is refreshing. Instead of being hit with clear-cut images on a white background, as with Walker, viewers of Rowe’s work are treated to figure foreground focal points which actively interact with the colorful background scenes. Through doing so, Rowe’s themes of busy movement reflect the modern African American work experience and culture.
Finally, Rowe leaves some of her works untitled, a rhetorical strategy intended to force the viewer into close inspection of her work. Titles usually draw the viewer’s attention to a certain aspect of the work; without them, they must individually interpret the aspects of racial, spiritual, and spatial meaning. In the Sturken and Cartwright article Practices of Looking, we find that to truly understand a painting- the context, it’s true representative nature, the artist’s meaning- we must look at it with ‘a greater sense of purpose and direction…to interpret.’” By looking at the piece on the left, a viewer notices an African American woman, the head of a bird, a variety of animals, and a plant reminiscent of an African tribal mask. Through asking questions such as “What do I expect to see, and how do I find a new perspective?” we develop our own unique titles for the work based on our emotional responses to the piece.
There are few controversies surrounding Rowe’s work, and those that do exist center primarily around her “childish” art. Since Rowe tends to use non-traditional media such as crayon, as in the case of most of her work such as Nellie in her Garden, critics focus on the drawbacks of using such simple materials with a lackluster composition. The perspective that viewers might interpret her work as less important due to its non-traditional composition is countered by Shukula in “Reviewed Work,” her evaluation of the Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do exhibit. Shukula praises Rowe’s use of medium, with the “nuances of the stylistic and conceptual genius found in these complex, dreamlike renderings.” In one of Rowe’s more African-influenced sculptures, her use of another medium, chewing gum, is unusual, “symbolic and unembellished” (Arnett) in image, and reflects her African-American roots. By dabbling in different media, even creating a ritual memory jug (Arnett), she demonstrates her flexibility as an artist. However, as seen in the Cornwill article, various critics believe the African influence is directed towards what consumers want, instead of emphasizing the African American struggles. When consumers demand pieces that are African American influenced but not representative of the African American lifestyle, artists produce art that is meaningless and only fashionable for the time. Thus, art loses the meaning behind it– the historical context, the artist’s perspective, the argument that African Americans are still enslaved in modern times– in favor of throw-away pieces only fashionable for profit. Rowe was not one of these artists; her passion for artistically conveying the legacy of slavery shines through in her pieces. Unfortunately, Rowe’s work was not fully accepted by those around her for many years, as many critics regarded self-taught art as “naive and primitive” (Conwill); she did not gain fame until the tail end of her life.
Overall, most feedback is positive; Rowe’s “bright colors and unexpected juxtapositions” (Bloom and Levitt) lend themselves to a pleasurable viewing experience. Her inclusion of themes of gender, race, and the subtle presence of religion appeal to audiences. Regarding gender, she believes that women should not be restricted to lives of domesticity and child-rearing at home. For race, Rowe’s use of African Americans and whites in different sections of her drawings shows the racial divide between them, even in context of a post-Civil Rights era, most notably seen in Nellie in her Garden. Though she does not explicitly address religion, her sculptures are influenced by Christian and African spiritual beliefs; for example, her ritual memory jug is preparation for a religious afterlife. In another religious sense, Rowe “attributed her talent to God,” and thusly formed a religious theme in her work (Bloom and Levitt). Surprisingly, Rowe herself did not consider herself an artist, an argument presented in DeCarlo’s “An Artist Who Didn’t Know She Was One.” Rowe created because she wanted to express; this rejects the earlier Cornwill notion of art turning to consumerism for profit. She was simultaneously a novel and revolutionary folk artist as well as an eccentric “old hoodoo woman” in the neighborhood (DeCarlo). Her intrinsic motivation shines through with her expression and pushing the traditional limits of folk art. In the NPR clip “Profile…” the speakers discuss the abstract nature of some of Rowe’s pieces, such as her chewing gum sculpture- namely that the material came from usually thrown-away pieces, but her creativity recycled them into art. Similarly, the abstract background of some drawings, such as Pig on Expressway, speaks to the artist’s imagination. Through vibrant color and movement, Rowe addresses the racial legacies of slavery and themes of religion and gender in her drawings. Her significant influence redefined the traditional sense of folk art to include self-taught artists. Through the High Museum’s collection of Rowe’s work, we can place folk art in the context of an African American artist’s perspective on the afterlives of slavery.
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Keywords: Nellie Mae Rowe, art, folk art, self-taught art, High Museum, animal motif, crayon medium, African American artists, Georgian artists