1900 - 1982

Nellie Mae Rowe

Vinings, Georgia

    I was born July 4, 1900, and raised on my parent’s farm in Fayette County, Georgia.

    When I was a little girl I would lay down on the floor and get my pencil and draw. I would draw all different things and after I finished drawing I would go in the kitchen and steal some flour, make it up into dough, and stick the drawings up on the wall. My sister would say. “Mama, make Nellie quit putting those drawings up”, but Mama would let me go on doing it.

    I didn’t go to school to learn drawing. I guessed at it when I was a little gal. Because we had to go to the fields, pick cotton and all like that, I didn’t have a chance to draw like I do now, and every chance I had, I would get my pencil, get down on the floor and draw until they said, “Nellie, let’s go.” At night I would get through with everything, get ready for bed, get my pencil and draw something. That was just in me and it is still in me. I would draw whatever I thought of, just like I do now.

    I bet I wasn’t 10 years old when I made my first doll. Sometimes when I ought to have been in the fields, I’d hide and go make dolls. I’d take up all the dirty clothes, tie them up, pack their heads full of soft stockings, and make eyes for them. I made some to look like people, but I would not tell them because it might hurt their feelings. They might not like the way they looked. When I was at home I was always studying about tying my clothes up. When Monday morning washday came, the clothes would be all tied up in knots, eyes anywhere I had used the pencil. I had to sit down and untie these clothes so I could wash them.

    There were nine girls and ten with the boy. The older ones were married and had children when I was coming up. I was second from the youngest. (Now there are two of us, my sister Minerva Brown and me.) Four of us came up together: Eva, May, Willie, and me. Eva liked to make dresses; May liked to cook; and Willie, the youngest, was just like me—she liked to play with dolls. Willie couldn’t make dolls like I could, so I made hers, too. We would get the clothes all tied up, sweep out from under some little pine trees and make the prettiest playhouse. I would hate it when our mother called us to the house because I wanted to be playing in my playhouse.

    My mother was born the year of freedom. She always said that she was born the year they freed the blacks. She wore silver dimes around her arms for rheumatism. She knew all kinds of remedies. We would go to the woods and pick sorrel grass and catnip and such. Now we go to the doctor because we don’t use herbs the way Mama did. My sister, Minerva, uses her own herbs. She won’t go to a doctor. She still works every day and is ninety-four years old.

    My Mama did everything. She was busy all the time; she made quilts and taught me to make them. I loved to quilt because it kept me out of the field, out of the sun, and in the shade. Mama made our dresses. At Easter time, Daddy would buy a bolt of cloth. We didn’t want the dresses alike, but we could get the cloth cheaper that way. Mama made them all different. Daddy bought us white high boot shoes and white stockings. God bless your soul, we thought we were dressed!

    Thank the Lord we are here now because I couldn’t go through what my Mama went through being as smart as she was, waiting on all those children and grandchildren. She stayed home and cooked and was satisfied. I know she got tired being at home. The cotton fields were right around the house and she would get her sack in her little spare time, get out there and pick an old sack full; she just wanted to be doing something. She got tired cooking; I know she did. She had everything to do. We picked the greens and carried them home, but she had to do all the washing of the greens. We had to go back to the fields and sometimes we would get wet clear up to the knees. We could not afford to wait until the grass and cotton dried off in the field, because it would take up so much of the day. Then we worked from sun-up to sun-down, sun-up to sun-down, but we were working for ourselves.

    I favored my daddy more than my mother. I’m short like him, but not as smart. He knew how to do most anything. He made the finest baskets in Fayette County. People came from all over to buy them. He was a farmer and a blacksmith. He had a syrup mill. He would hitch the mule to the mill and the mule would go-’round and ’round grinding the juice out of the sugar cane. Then he strained and cooked it. That was the best syrup you could eat; people liked to buy it. We had our own sweet potatoes, corn, Irish potatoes, beans and peas. We shelled the peas and put them up, cut the beans and canned them. We always had meat, slices of ham, and sometimes hog shoulder, and we had all the milk and eggs we wanted.

    Daddy was a smart worker and he kept us in the field doing all kinds of work: picking cotton, chopping cotton, hauling corn and watermelons. We had a big apple orchard and we would haul the apples to the barn. We plowed with the mules, Molly and Mike. I plowed with Molly; I plowed with Mike. I talk about it, but I didn’t like to plow. I didn’t like to do anything in the field. I also fished, but I didn’t like to fish. I just liked to draw and make dolls.

    My daddy lived in slavery times. He would sit down at night and tell us children, “You all think you are having a hard time, you ought to have come up when I did.” He said, “Just like you get a bucket and go out there and feed my hogs in the trough, that’s the way I was fed coming up in slavery times.” He was just saying we ought to be grateful that we didn’t come up like he did.

    I have no energy to draw pictures about slavery times. It makes me feel sad. You must not think back to those times because these are new days.

    That is why I don’t like to look at ROOTS. It makes me feel like I was back in slavery times. You see one and then another being whipped until the blood comes out and I don’t want to look at it. I think to myself, “If I’d been living then it would have been my skin.” In ROOTS you see them plowing the field, barefoot with some old swamp hat on, and they look back and the boss maybe looking at them . . . Oh, Lordy! Lord have mercy. That seems pitiful, seems mean and pitiful.

    I was about seventeen years old when I ran off and got married. If I had stayed home I would have been better off. I’ve been married twice. The first time we stayed around Fayette County where I was born until we moved to Vinings in 1930. He farmed and worked the sawmill awhile. He died in Vinings in 1936. Later that year I married Henry Rowe who was much older than me. We built this house in 1939, and we lived a good little life here. He farmed and I worked for the Buddy Smiths in their home across the road for the next thirty years. I didn’t start back drawing when I was working for them, no more than maybe just sit down and draw something and throw it away. I would just pick up some big brown piece of paper and draw a great big picture on it.

    I didn’t hang anything outside or draw while Henry Rowe was alive. When he died in 1948, I started hanging things in the yard, in the trees and bushes. I said, “Now I’m going to get back to when I was a little gal playing in the yard, playing in my playhouse.”

    The yard was decorated pretty. Because of the talent God gave me, many people started visiting and taking pictures. What is exciting and surprising and makes me feel good is to think about the people I would never have seen if I had not been doing things that were interesting to them. Folks brought me all kinds of things: dolls, stuffed animals, beads, bottles, and sometimes strangers would leave things at my gate. I would place them in my yard and some I would hang indoors against the walls. Everything else, other than what people gave me, I picked up. I like it when things keep on changing; keeps me busy.

    I chewed a lot of chewing gum because the doctor said chewing would help the jumping in my head. People began bringing me packages of chewing gum. And I said, now as much chewing gum as I chew, I’m going to make something. So I saved my chewing gum and when I saved a big ball, I started making things. I used to have chewing gum cats and dogs all up and down my fence. Now, I chew gum just to make things.

    When other people have something they don’t know what to do with, they throw it away, but not me. I’m going to make something out of it. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been that way. I would take nothing and make something.

    Long time ago people were very mean to me. Because I kept things hanging in the trees and bushes, they thought I was a fortune-teller. They knocked all my windows out. They threw rocks, firecrackers, old rotten eggs, and everything up against the house. Some of them said I wouldn’t stay in the house. But I kept on tolerating them and talking to the Master until they stopped. If you trust in God all will be well. I stayed on here and I’m still here.

    In my home, there were nine girls, and I was the only one who didn’t have children . . . but He gave me this gift. He is the One who gave me this hand. As I tell it, God gives everybody a talent. It was my talent to lay down on the floor and draw. Don’t you know the Lord is good to us when we don’t know He is good to us? I know He is good to me because He leads me and guides me and I have to draw the way my talent that God gave me tells me what to.

    I draw what’s on my mind. What’s important is thinking about what I’m going to make. I sit and look my paper over. It will come to me. I look and study and if I see a man’s head, a woman’s head, a woman’s feet, or anything, I start from that. I may make a start with a straight mark, and it will come to me what I want to make. And also if I’m going to draw a tree, I wouldn’t know what kind it’s going to be until I get started. Then it may turn out to be different from what I started it to be. I just guess at what I do; it just comes in my mind.

    When I draw I first take a common pencil, and if I draw an eye that I don’t like, I can spoil it out. Then I use my colors. I don’t care if the color is ink, watercolor, crayon, or pencil, whatever matches is what I will use. What paper takes the best is the one I will use.

    When I went to New York in the airplane, I saw a picture in the clouds and I got my pencil right out. I drew something with a long tail and horns.

    I can draw roses real good. I don’t have to look at them. I just know how roses grow, how vines and trees grow.

    I just draw the way I see things. I see people crippled and I may draw them to ask the Lord to help them. Nothing I draw I draw to make fun of. I draw what I see of people’s condition and I ask the Lord to help them.

    I don’t know why He put me here but He has me here for something because I don’t draw like anyone else; I don’t try to draw like anyone else. I see what I draw in my mind late at night and I don’t care how crazy it is, I’ll probably draw it.

    Things come to me in my sleep and sometimes I will get up in the night and make a start of what I’ve seen. If I don’t I will forget how it looked the next morning. It is just like a dream to me when I see those things. 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. I draw things you haven’t seen born into this world, but these things may someday be born but I’ll be on through.

    The pictures I am proud of that I have made are of my hand. I leave my hand, just like you leave your hand on the wall. I leave my hand on the wall. When I’m gone they can see a print of my hand. I love that—to see a print of my hand. I’ll be gone to rest, but they can look back and say “that is Nellie Mae’s hand.”

    I enjoy trying to draw when I am sick. I just have to be doing something. Drawing is the only thing I think is good for the Lord. I try to draw because He is wonderful to me. I just have to keep drawing until He says, “Well done, Nellie, you have been faithful.” Then I will know that I have finished my work. When I wake up in glory I want to hear “Well done, Nellie, well done.” That is when the happiness come by.

    All my dolls, chewing gum sculptures, everything will be something to remember Nellie. If you will remember me I will be glad and happy to know that people have something to remember me by when I’m gone to rest.

    I’m so thankful I’m able to be up in my sick days. I feel like I’m growing stronger because I’m serving the Lord, and I thank Him for everything; letting me stay here this long, living down here on love and land, for this world is not my home. My home is on high and I’m going to reach it one day. (I have to take time and get my breath. I’m growing short-winded.) I like to do my work; I enjoy sitting here drawing. As long as I’m able that is what I’m going to do. When I was a child, I always liked to get a pencil and paper, get down on the floor and draw. It didn’t amount to nothing then, but in the long run, it did. You first have to be a baby, then you go crawling, then you walk. So I kept on moving along until I got to be an old woman. Now I got to get back to my childhood, what you call playing in a playhouse. My little old house is just a playhouse, just something to sleep in like it was when I was a child. I love to have a playhouse. I use to keep it up better, but I’m kind of weak now, but I can keep it up good enough for you to come visit me. You all come and see me anytime, be glad for you to come by to see me.

    Interview by Judith Alexander, 1982
    Excerpts of tapes compiled by Judith Alexander
    Courtesy of The Judith Alexander Foundation

    Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    A wide-ranging survey of Black art in the American South, from Thornton Dial and Nellie Mae Rowe to the quilters of Gee’s Bend For generations, Black artists from the American South have forged a unique art tradition. Working in near isolation from established practices, they have created masterpieces in clay, driftwood, roots, soil, and recycled and cast-off objects that articulate America's painful past--the inhuman practice of enslavement, the cruel segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era and institutionalized racism. Their works respond to issues ranging from economic inequality, oppression and social marginalization to sexuality, the influence of place and ancestral memory.
    My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South

    My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South

    A new consideration of extraordinary art created by self-taught Black artists during the mid-20th century​. My Soul Has Grown Deep considers the art-historical significance of self-taught Black artists, many working under conditions of poverty and isolation, in the American South. It features paintings and drawings, mixed-media and sculptural works, and quilts, including pieces ranging from the pioneering paintings of Thornton Dial (1928–2016) to the renowned quilts made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.
    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

    The African American culture of the South has produced many of the twentieth century’s most innovative art forms. Widely appreciated for its music—from the blues and jazz, to gospel, soul, rock ‘n’ roll—the region has also played host to a less visible but equally important visual art tradition.

    Nellie Mae Rowe: Picking Cotton

    Nellie Mae Rowe: Picking Cotton

    April 20, 2023

    Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    Royal Academy of Arts
    March 17, 2023 to June 18, 2023
    For generations, Black artists from the American South have forged a unique art tradition. Working in near isolation from established practices, they have created masterpieces that articulate America’s painful past – the inhuman practice of enslavement, the cruel segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era, and institutionalised racism. Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers brings together sculpture, paintings, reliefs, drawings, and quilts, most of which will be seen in the UK and Europe for the first time. It will also feature the celebrated quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and the neighbouring communities of Rehoboth and Alberta.
    Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South

    Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South

    National Gallery of Art
    September 18, 2022 to December 31, 2023

    In 2020, the National Gallery acquired 40 sculptures, assemblages, paintings, reliefs, quilts, and drawings from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, and several related gifts have recently entered the collection as well. Enjoy these inventive works, including nine Gee’s Bend quilts, and learn the remarkable stories of their making and makers.

    Another Tradition: Drawings by Black Artists from the American South

    Another Tradition: Drawings by Black Artists from the American South

    The Morgan Library & Museum
    September 24, 2021 to January 16, 2022

    This exhibition celebrates the Morgan’s 2018 acquisition of eleven drawings from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting Black Southern artists and their communities. The artists represented in the acquisition are Thornton Dial, Nellie Mae Rowe, Henry Speller, Luster Willis, and Purvis Young.

    The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse

    The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse

    Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
    May 22, 2021 to September 6, 2021

    The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse investigates the aesthetic impulses of early 20th-century Black culture that have proved ubiquitous to the southern region of the United States.

    In the Presence of Our Ancestors: Southern Perspectives in African American Art

    In the Presence of Our Ancestors: Southern Perspectives in African American Art

    Minneapolis Institute of Art
    December 12, 2020 to December 5, 2021

    In the Presence of Our Ancestors: Southern Perspectives in African American Art” brings together methods of visual storytelling and ancestral memory through the individual practices of artists from the “Black Belt” region of the American South—a term that refers to the region’s black soil, as well as the le

    We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South

    We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South

    Turner Contemporary
    February 7, 2020 to September 6, 2020

    We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South is the first exhibition of its kind in the UK and reveals a little-known history shaped by the Civil Rights period in the 1950s and 60s. It will bring together sculptural assemblages, paintings and quilts by more than 20 African American artists from Alabama and surrounding states.

    History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift

    History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    May 22 - September 23, 2018

    This exhibition will present 30 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and quilts by self-taught contemporary African American artists to celebrate the 2014 gift to The Metropolitan Museum of Art of works of art from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

    Nellie Mae Rowe

    The filming for this short began in 1987 as part of a larger project, The Mind’s Eye—which started with the documentation of “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980,” a traveling exhibition organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art—and grew to include other folk/self-taught artists working at the time. Produced by The Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists.

    Nellie's Playhouse part 1

    A film by Linda Connelly Armstrong, 1976

    Nellie's Playhouse part 2

    A film by Linda Connelly Armstrong, 1976

    Inside the Perimeter

    William Arnett

    Nellie Mae Rowe was forty-eight years old when Henry, her second husband, died.

    As a young girl, she had picked cotton and worked in the fields with her family in Fayette County, Georgia. Her father, Sam Williams, a blacksmith and farmer, occasionally hired the children out by the day to work in the neighbors’ fields. It was a proud and self-sustaining family.

    Young Rowe was not satisfied with her life as a field hand. The work was painful, poorly compensated, and undignified. So at sixteen, she married a young man a few years older than herself. In 1930 they moved to Vinnings, on the outskirts of Atlanta. Marriage perhaps seemed preferable to fieldwork but did not turn out to be. Her life on the farm was probably better than life in the kitchen or the bedroom.

    Her husband, Ben Wheat, died in 1936. Later that year she married again, a widower much older than she, a man who was a well-respected member of the Vinnings community. When Henry Rowe died in 1948, Nellie Mae Rowe found herself, for the first time in her life, answerable to no one. She had always been a field hand, a wife, or a domestic servant. Now she had the freedom to imagine herself in roles different from those defined for her by others.

    Seventy-five cents a day. All-day long for seventy-five cents. I did like to hear at dinnertime when the bell ring. I know we was going to have plenty to eat. Lord have mercy. I wish I could eat like that now. We worked and we ate aplenty too. Foods don’t eat now like it did when I was a child. You cook anything in an iron pot, it better than this here aluminum pot. We eat, and when we go into the fields, the girls and boys . . . we worked. We done good work, and most everybody wanted us to work with them. Folks pick out who they want to work for them, who’s smart. I was about sixteen when I run off and got married. I should have stayed home. I’d a been better off. Then I come up here and married again, Henry Rowe. I lived a good little life, and after he died, I said, “I ain’t fooling around no more.”

    “Ain’t fooling around no more” 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. “I’m going back to my childhood."

    She remembered happier days when she would “play in the playhouse, find something, pretty rock or pretty flower or old broke plate or something, get it and make a playhouse, in the pines, rig the straw up. Look like time you get start to play and that’s when they call you into the house to do something. I enjoy playing. I ain’t trying to keep house now, I’m just a-playing house. I just got my playhouse like I’m come back a baby again.” The first step was to announce herself. She began to turn the front yard of her two-room cottage into an elaborately decorated space that she later referred to as her “playhouse.” In an enclosed area she gradually added dozens of objects—from stuffed animals to household bric-a-brac—suspended from trees and clotheslines and nailed to the façade of the house. She made life-size dolls and placed them around her yard (they often got stolen): she made chewing-gum sculptures and set them on the fence surrounding her property (they often got stolen, too); and she shaped the hedges to look like animals.

    Her yard was not unusual relative to African American yard shows throughout the South. But it faced Paces Ferry Road, a major Atlanta residential route, and was only a few minutes away from the city’s most exclusive white neighborhoods. The message of this middle-aged African American widow seemed eminently clear: I am Nellie Mae Rowe. This is my place and I will make of it what I please. Be aware of me.

    She decided to resume drawing, her favorite childhood pastime:

    I ain’t gone to school to learn no work like that. I guessed at it when I was a little gal, just lay down on the floor and draw. See, we had to go to fields, pick cotton and all like that. I didn’t have a chance like I have now, and every chance I got, I got my pencil, I got on the floor until they say, “Nellie, let’s go.” And then I’d go. . . .  I’d lay my pencil down at night, take a bath, get ready for bed. I just had to go get my pencil and draw something. That was in me and it’s still in me. They didn’t ever much bother me. They’d be doing other things and I’m doing what I’m going to do. . . . That was just in my mind. I don’t be knowing what it is myself. Folks draw, they know what they’re drawing. But they say that I, my soul, look back in wonder. So that’s the way it is. That’s a song, kind of like hymn: My soul looked back in wonder, I ride over, I ride over.

    Unlike many African American artists, who found little support at home for their early artistic efforts, Rowe was always encouraged by her parents. Her father was a blacksmith and basket maker and her mother made quilts and clothing, so both appreciated their daughter’s creativity. But opposition and obstruction came from other directions, and until the last years of her life, when her work was becoming respected and appreciated, Rowe was forced to defend her art and her living space against various unexpected adversaries. The first of them came when she was a child, living “nowhere; out in the country.” She made a paste of flour and water to attach her drawings to the bedroom wall:

    I’d make up a dough, you know, and stick it up inside the house. The rats would be there, so way in the night the rats would be gnawing on that paper on account of that flour behind it. And I’d hear them tearing through the night and I’d get me a hat pin. You could see the rats working under there. Just like that I’d get the hat pin. . . .  Oh! I did it! And they just stay in there until next morning. I did that many times. I was mean then. I was a mean little old short thing, an Indian, you know, with my britches up. I give it to them. I say, “You won’t gnaw on there no more.” I took that pin and jab it through them and they stay there. Next morning I pull it out and them fall. I knew they was dead then.

    Seventy years later, as she faced death from cancer, she still worried about her youthful cruelty to the rats. She assumed that the Lord had understood: “It’s all forgiven ‘cause it was in my childhood.”

    When she decided later in life to “decorate the outdoors” in front of her house, she encountered an unexpected and more frightening type of adversary, one whose opposition was based on ignorance rather than hunger:

    I started doing it way ago, right after my husband died. He died in ‘48 and then people just started to bring in this, bring the dolls, and bringing me things. I take nothing, you know, take nothing and make something out of it. See, a lot of folks, they crawl, run in here, inside, knock my fence down, tear up lot of that. Everyone used to be so mean to me around here. They started off being very, very mean to me. They throw rocks and knock my window out, rocks all up against the house, firecrackers and everything and old rotten eggs all over my house. And I kept on tolerating and talking with the Master until everything was all right. I prayed and asked God and he moved it. See, I kept my things hanging outdoors in the trees. These old weavings, I’d make the eyes on them, make the big popeyes. They thought I was a hoodoo or something like that. I put up wig heads. I put the wig on them and sometimes have a shawl hanging on it. From here look like a person sit up in the tree.

    The evolution of Rowe’s drawing proceeded slowly. Most of her work in the sixties and seventies consisted of little more than a single image, probably a symbolic one—a hand, a fish, an animal, a human face or figure—unembellished. Her vision, ambition, skill, and the complexity of her work expanded considerably during the last four years of her life. Judith Alexander, her close friend and art dealer during that time, arranged many exhibitions of Rowe’s work, engendering a positive effect on Rowe’s confidence and enthusiasm. An appreciative audience was forming, and though the numerous visitors that descended upon her did not necessarily detect her work’s messages, it was clear that they loved the messenger and the messenger’s work. But the most significant single cause of her dramatic artistic acceleration was probably the realization that death was near (she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1981 and died in 1982). She wanted to ensure that by the end of her life her talents were fully developed and utilized, perhaps, as she often said, to prove her worthiness to Jesus, but, as likely, to prove her worthiness simply to herself.

    Rowe liked to talk about herself as though she were experiencing a second childhood: drawing was the center of that childhood. Her stylistic naiveté and seemingly simple subject matter would tend to enforce that contention. But something else was going on.

    Each of her drawings has a specific purpose, a specific action. Most drawings are composed of an array of elements: trees, human figures (often a form of self-portrait), animals, birds, flowers, and less often, houses, roads, pieces of furniture. The relationships among the elements are well-thought-out and form a disguised narrative that is metaphorical and often satirical.

    The late drawings are all autobiographical. Many deal with aspects of Rowe’s life that she would like to have seen improved. She conceals a lifetime of suppressed resentment beneath a “peaceable kingdom” innocence and a sense of humor exemplified by a use of ironic symbols and private visual jokes/anecdotes.

    Something That Ain’t Been Born Yet is a humorous look at men. A plaid equine animal with a single horn and long tongue is presented against a ground that simulates the pattern of the artist’s chenille bedspreads. The ideal man that Nellie Mae Rowe never met is the “something that ain’t been born yet.”

    Fish is about sex and reproduction, perhaps an observation about Rowe’s own inability to bear children. Female reproductive organs are transformed into trees. A bird plucks a red, cherry-like fruit, while another pecks at an anthropomorphic bush.

    Rowe registers a humorous complaint about excessive male sexual demands in Woman Scolding Her Companion. The woman, Rowe herself, assumes a combative posture and turns away a peculiar creature that resembles a penis with a dog’s body. Other images adorn the drawing and enforce the central topic: between the two antagonists is a phallic staff with a smiling male face (virtually identical to dance wands used by the Yoruba of Nigeria in rituals honoring Shango the Thundergod); a fruit bowl—or fountain or birdbath—surmounted by an erupting green apple. On the side of the bowl, there appears to be a slice of watermelon, an obscure but specific sexual innuendo, and several small imaginary animals, all sexually referenced.

    One of the oldest types of African American ritual objects associated with death/funerary rites is the decorated vessel called the “memory jug.” Such objects were usually ceramic, occasionally concrete, and were embedded with everything from broken glass and rocks to personal mementos belonging to or relating to the deceased. Another related traditional object, the ceramic “face jug,” can, like the memory jug, be traced back at least to the nineteenth century in North America. Both traditions have antecedents among African, European, and native cultures of the Americas. Nellie Mae Rowe, feeling herself to be in declining health in 1980, modeled a Janus-faced doll of gum she had chewed, decorating it with personal articles of adornment, including rhinestones, pearls, and ribbons (Two-faced Head). Embedded in the top of the head is a bottle cap: Rowe intends this piece to be a metaphorical vessel for her soul, similar to the pocketbook drawing done at the end of her life. In the tradition of grave markers, encompassing the last objects used by the interred, and charms incorporating the subject’s hair, nails, saliva, and even dirt from footprints. Rowe uses her own chewing gum to further personalize and empower the object.

    A well-publicized tragedy prompted Rowe’s Atlanta’s Missing Children in early 1981. The drawing consists of five separate “charms,” each with a different significance, collectively intended to protect the African American children who were systematically being abducted and murdered. The charms surround a blue animal, similar to many of the benevolent blue dogs and pigs that populate Rowe’s works. But this animal has cloven hooves and an entirely suspect countenance. It is a malevolent creature. Rowe seems to be warning the children that the killer may well look familiar and friendly. Two of the charms are protective “mojo” hands, probably the artist’s. (She wrote in 1981, “I leave my hand on the wall. I’ll be gone to rest, but they can look back and say “That is Nellie Mae’s hand.’”) A small girl in red, probably the artist as a child, sits in a blue chair in another of the charms. All three are in blue “frames”: further protection. In a small charm framed ominously in black at the bottom of the picture, an unhappy male child appears to be scolded by an older female. Perhaps Rowe senses something about the killer’s childhood that contributed to his pathology.

    Animals are prominent in most of Rowe’s drawings. She finds many ways to employ them in her narratives. In some works animals are used, a la Orwell’s Animal Farm, to act out and satirize the flaws and foibles Rowe recognizes in the human world. Perhaps some animals are Rowe self-portraits; Molly the black mule, for example, forced to work against her will, or the many little dogs who confront, oppose or ignore their masters. But though she loved to draw animals, she refused to own one. A woman so opposed to having her own life controlled by others could not bring herself to determine the fate of another living thing.

    I seen a whole lot if I don’t see nothing else. I seen more than I thought I’d ever see. When I was coming up in the fields picking cotton, anybody told me I’d a-see what I’ve seen now I wouldn’t have believed it. I just always thought I’d always have to work in the fields a lot. We had to work too hard when coming up all in our younger days. Work in the fields so hard, and wasn’t getting nothing, but we was forced then. All-day long in the hot sun, sunup to sundown. I don’t like to look at it. That was the older people back then, and these here now can’t help what was done back then in slavery time. My daddy told me. He was in slavery time. He said that when he was a boy in slavery time, he said they poured in food just like you feeding a hog, pour it in a trough. They’d have a long trough, made you sit there. You had to get down and lap just like hogs. That’s what he said. I don’t like to look at that. I won’t look at “Roots” ‘cause that’s back in it. It make you feel so bad to see how they whipping that one, and whipping one that’s tired, and they’s whipping and the blood come out, and I just don’t ever look at what you call “the roots.”

    But that’s the reason I said that about the other generation. That was back in slavery time, that ain’t now. That don’t make me have nothing against nobody now. But I don’t want to look at it. God knows in heaven that I’ve loved people, don’t make no difference what color they are. That son says, “I don’t hate nobody. I love everybody.” I try to. But I just don’t like to look at that. I think to myself, “If I’d a-been coming on then it’d been my skin.”  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 put them together. They’d pick out the good stock, just like if you’s big and fat and healthy they’d see a man over there was healthy and they’d put them together so they’d have healthy childrens. Just like you do stock marriage. That’s what they do then. I had my daddy tell me that many times. They’d make a nice couple, you know, to raise children that’d be good workers. See them plowing in the field barefooted and some old swap hat on, and they looked back and the boss maybe looking at them. Oh Lordy, Lord have mercy. That’s mean. Seem pitiful, seem pitiful.

    In 1981 Rowe learned that cancer was present in her body. From the point of that diagnosis, it appears that each of her drawings dealt with the subject of death. Just as she had taken control of her life, and used her art to define and explain it, she prepared to take control of her death. She devised an elaborate vision of the next world, and she modified her complex system of symbols to apply to her new challenge. Her statements, and her drawings, indicate that she had no fear of dying, but rather regarded it as a passage to an improved existence.

    In her final year, many of her drawings contained inscriptions, such as

    I Will See You Later Bird
    Lost Lost Dog
    Sleepy Girl
    I Have a Ride at Last
    I Will Be Back When the Weather Gets Cool
    Going Home
    One, with dismembered body parts, tells us, “I will see you later when I get myself back together.”

    A remarkable drawing done in 1981 called Picking Cotton could have been called “What I don’t like about my life as I look back on it.” The artist is seen bending over near a grassy field (not really a cotton field, the cotton field suggested in the title simply symbolizing the most degrading form of manual labor). She is wearing a party dress, an insistence that fieldwork is not her lot. On her back is what she referred to as a cotton sack, but it appears as a woman in a compromising sexual position. The figure of the artist is imposed upon by a black mule, the mule a symbol of forced labor, the color black, death. Looking directly into the posterior of the cotton-sack female is a seated white woman, probably representing Rowe’s employers during her many years as a domestic servant. The woman is sternly scrutinizing her. Beneath the chair is a red rodent, an image used by Rowe to signal an unpleasant situation, and a sinister-looking fish, a phallic connotation in Rowe’s work. In the lower-left corner sits a grinning green man, an overseer or husband, perhaps. He sits and watches her as she works, illustrating a complaint Rowe had expressed about her husbands. One of Rowe’s most prominent symbols appears twice here: a brightly colored bird with a curved pointed beak, plucking fruit from a tree. This bird may be a specific reference to a man taking advantage of a young woman. It may also serve as many of Rowe’s animal metaphors do, to symbolize a characteristic of society in general, in this case, its predatory, scavenging instinct. Or it may represent sickness, pecking away at Rowe’s life.

    In Nellie’s House at Night (1981) she reveals her illness: a frightening white doglike animal sitting in front of a tombstone beside her house. The house is empty but is lighted inside. There is a slight presence of life—small flowering plants bloom in the window; floral designs flank double doors (passageways into and out of life). The roof is blue, a color used throughout the South in African American homes to ward off evil spirits. Rowe depicts herself as a brown pig. Here it seems to float upward, ascending to the green pastures, eyeing the comfort of heaven’s abundant fruit trees and protective branches.

    Rocking Chair (1981) focuses on Rowe’s most striking symbol of death, the empty chair. Apparently, this piece was created shortly after Rowe was told she had cancer and is probably her first use of the empty chair as a metaphor for death. Although the interior scene is lively and animated, there are repeated references to death. Rowe, who had quilted earlier in her life, constructs the drawing like a traditional African American strip quilt, each panel containing its own set of design elements, symbolic objects, and stylistic conventions, all combining into a unified and balanced composition. There are many identifiable components, all of which imply impending death and all of which can be found in other Rowe works of 1981. Among the more obvious are an angel, dying plants, butterflies, and a black dog. There are others more complicated, private, and esoteric, among which are a simple flowerlike fan blade, (the life cycle, presumably); a small animal plucking the fruit from a vine (Rowe uses this image to denote various indignities to woman, not the least of which is the perforation of her body); a checkerboard (life as a game of chance?), next to which is a cat playing with a target-like ball, a variation, perhaps, of the “life is a game” theme; and a root, a forked stick, growing out of a small foot, with one branch culminating in a doll (Rowe was a prolific dollmaker) and the other ending at a dancing figure representing Rowe as a little girl. When Rowe contemplates the end of her life, she frequently employs imagery depicting its beginnings.

    In Empty Chair (1981), the adult Nellie Mae Rowe, dressed in red, turns away from a celebratory tree of life surrounded by birds and animals. She looks toward death, summed up as her past and future: above the empty chair is the specter of young Nellie Mae in the green pasture, flanked by two nose-diving birds. Below the tree of life, a bird plucks the berries from a potted plant or fruit basket.

    On July 4, 1981, Rowe’s eighty-first birthday, she executed a drawing indicating her belief that she was celebrating her final birthday (Nellie's Birthday). An empty chair, dying plants, a tree of life outlined in black, a tombstone inscribed with the day’s date, a blue dog—an ancestral symbol among the Kongo of Zaire, perhaps the same in Rowe’s work. A female figure, representing Rowe as a young woman, leans toward the tombstone.

    Woman Flying a Butterfly Kite (1981) is Nellie Mae Rowe walking uphill on a road flying a kite in the shape of a butterfly. She is barefoot, but as the spiritual has promised her, she will get her shoes in heaven. She leaves the empty chair behind, walks past the water, heads toward the green pastures and the heavily fruited trees (phallic, with testicles—shall heaven provide Rowe with a compatible mate, and children, things life denied her?).

    In her later years, Rowe lived equidistant from two interstate highways that quite literally identified and delimited her world: I-75, which bisects the city of Atlanta, and I-285, which Atlantans commonly refer to as the Perimeter. The road has an ongoing presence in Rowe’s work. “Going up the road” or “crossing the road” became synonymous to her with dying. An earlier Rowe work, Pig on Expressway (1980), introduces the theme and predicts her own death.

    In 1982, close to death, Rowe created Pocketbook. The pocketbook is surrounded by dying flowers in the four corners of the drawing. Rowe’s closest personal possession, her purse, becomes her traveling bag for the longest journey of her life. It is blue, inscribed with three living flowers, and floats on a red ground like a spaceship transporting her soul to the heaven she had been waiting to visit.

    One of her last pieces, entitled At the Riverside (1982), was drawn with a marking pen that was running out of ink. Rowe seems to be musing on the idea that her life, the picture, and the ink will all run out at the same moment.

    The Lord got me here for something. I don’t know, a lot of people say I preach. You know, a lot of people, women, they preachers, and a lot of men preaching. Now God didn’t probably call on them to preach, he calls some of them to teach. . . .  But they tell you the teachers gone a-preaching.

    I don’t know what he put me here for, but he got me here for something ‘cause I don’t draw like nobody. You speak one way, but I come on and say it different. You can draw a mule, dog, cat, or a human person, I’m going to draw it different. ‘Cause you always see things different. Each person’s different. I can sit here right now and look down there on the floor; I can see something, it look like it something I could draw. I was right down to the hospital and I looked at the rug there, well, sometime I can see something in that. Look like a cat, dog, or something. That’s the way I do my drawing.
    When I go up to New York there was a picture up in them clouds. I was on the airplane and I looked up at those clouds, and I got my pencil right out and draw something.
    I can draw roses good. I don’t have to look at them. I don’t have to have them. I just know how they grow, vines, trees and like that, see, I know how they grow.

    I just sees people crippled, and I drawed that to ask the Lord to help them through. Nothing I draw to make fun of. I draw things what I see, people’s condition, and ask the Lord to help them. I ain’t drawed myself when I was sick. Not yet; I sees what I draw in my mind late at night. That’s what I do. And I can see everything like that. I don’t care how crazy it is I’ll probably draw it. See things, see in your sleep. If I can keep it on my mind, I can get up and draw it. Heap a-time I get up through the night when I see things plain like that, I get up and draw it. Then it be more natural, ‘cause if you lay there all night and wait til the next morning you forget probably how  some of it was.

    I tell you about the Lord mean for me to teach instead of preaching. God put me here for something. He got everybody here for something. That’s the reason he let me live this long. There’s some work I need to do before he take me. I ain’t done my work what he wants me to do. That’s why the talent he gives me to do this work, he give me that ‘cause I didn’t have no children and he give me something to do. It’s the only thing I think is good for the Lord. I just have to keep doing it until he says, “Well done, Nellie, you have been faithful, well done.” Then I know I be done doing. When God seen to call for me I want to be ready my way on. I want to be ready to fly all the way to Jesus. I want to fly over there and be close to my Lord but I’m having a hard time now and then. This wasn’t nigh ever home. This land is borrowed we living on. . . .  We done been living on borrowed land. This world is not my own. It ain’t my home.

    They say this world don’t stand. Nobody don’t know how long it going to stand. I believe the time’s at hand. We may be going to live in another planet just like we living here. We might be living some place else when Judgment Day. Nobody know when Judgment Day going to come. It may not be no Judgment Day.

    When I wake up in glory, I want it to be “well done, Nellie, well done.” That’s when the happiness comes by. Had a hard time down here, struggling and tussling, folks is so mean to one another, Lord have mercy. I wish everybody would love another. The world would stand longer; we would be so happy. The day is sure to come, they all know, ‘cause it’s coming, and then it be too late. You be running but you can’t hide. You run to the rock but you can’t hide. Yes, my Lordy, oh blessed, blessed be the name of the Lord. I couldn’t be nothing but happy in joy and happiness, peace. I talk with him and he lets me know I still needs him. I still needs him to the very end. I just don’t know nobody but my Lord. Best we can live, honey, you know, the best we can live. We ain’t done yet what we should do. We always got some work to do for the Lord, and I’m going to try my best to do it. I’m asking him to help give me strength and help me do what he wants me to do. If it ain’t right, he’ll cut you down if you’re wrong. ‘Cause I asked him, “Lord if I’m doing wrong cut me down. And just send your mercy down to help me. Let me live right! I’m going to try and do that. Lord have mercy on us, trust in Jesus. So praise the Lord, thank you Jesus. I’ll be going now, Honey.”

    The author would like to thank Judith Alexander for providing background material for this essay. The quotations from Nellie Mae Rowe are derived from interviews with Maude Wahlman and Judith Alexander conducted in 1981 and 1982.