Nellie Mae Rowe was an African-American artist from Fayette County, Georgia. Although she is best known today for her colorful works on paper, Rowe worked across mediums, creating drawings, collages, altered photographs, hand-sewn dolls, home installations and sculptural environments. She was said to have an “instinctive understanding of the relation between color and form.” Her work focuses on race, gender, domesticity, African-American folklore, and spiritual traditions.
Born on July 4, 1900, Rowe grew up in the farming community of Fayetteville, Georgia. She was one of ten children. It was noted that she began drawing at an early age. Her family was burdened by financial pressures and she lef t school after the fourth grade to work in the fields with her father, a former slave, Sam Williams. In addition to managing the rented family farm, her father worked as a blacksmith and basket weaver. Her mother, Luelle Swanson, was an expert seamstress and a quilter. Rowe’s mother taught her to create dolls, quilts and small wooden sculptures.
When Rowe was 16, she ran away from the farm because she found the work to be “painful, poorly compensated and undignified.” Rowe married Ben Wheat right after leaving the family farm. The couple remained in Fayetteville until 1930, when they moved in Vinings, a small rural community northwest of Atlanta. In Vinings, Rowe began to work as a domestic. In 1936 her husband died from cardiovascular renal disease.
Rowe met her second husband, Henry ‘Buddy’ Rowe, an older widower and fellow Vinings resident in 1937. In 1939, the couple built a home together that Rowe called her “playhouse.” It was located at 2041 Paces Ferry Road. When Henry died nine years later, Rowe, now at the age of forty-eight devoted her full attention to her art making.
Over the span of the next three decades, Rowe developed a large body of multifaceted work. In the final decade of her life, her art was shown at local and national galleries and museum. In November 1981, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. On October 18, 1982, after spending her final weeks in the hospital, Rowe died. She is buried in the Flat Rock A.M.E. Cemetery in Fayetteville, Georgia.