Picking Cotton

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    Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio
Crayon, felt-tip pen, ballpoint pen, on paper
19 x 24.5 inches
Collection of
The Dallas Museum of Art
Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

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 field work 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.