Exhibition of Works by Folk Artists in Springfield
SPRINGFIELD — Born July 4, 1900, Nellie Mae Rowe spent the first half of her life working – as a girl on the family farm in Fayette County, Georgia, then as a wife, twice widowed, and as a servant.
But by the end of the 1950s, after the departure of her two husbands and the death of the white couple for whom she was cleaning, Nellie Mae was free to devote herself to her passion: making art.
“Now I have to go back to my childhood,” said the self-taught African-American artist. “What you call playing in a theater.”
Not only did she recreate a childhood for herself in her colorful drawings, but she transformed her home in Vinings, Georgia into a playhouse decorated with lost and found facilities, dolls, chewing gum sculptures and hundreds of drawings. An Atlanta-area newspaper called it an “explosion of creativity.”
Nellie Mae Rowe: Exhibition of Works on Display at the Springfield Museum of Art
An exhibition of 60 works by this overlooked American folk artist can be seen in “Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe,” on view through July 10 at Springfield Art Museum. The traveling exhibition, making its first stop in Springfield, was organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
The works are neatly housed in the museum’s largest gallery in Springfield, with five chronological sections following Rowe from his earliest days as an artist until his death in 1982. Working primarily in pencil and pencil on paper, Rowe created intricate and often fantastic designs that made use of every available space on paper.
A huge chicken is the centerpiece of a design inspired by the saying creatively spelled on a napkin Rowe found at her niece’s house: “My house is clean enough to be healthy and it’s dirty enough to be happy. “
“Untitled (Pig on Expressway)” (1980) places a confused-looking pig on colorful swirls representing highways, a humorous but pointed critique of the construction of highways and gentrification neighborhoods that disproportionately affected black communities.
Rowe placed herself in “Untitled (Nellie in Her Garden)” (1978-1982) with a mulberry tree just outside her Playhouse. After her death, the Playhouse was flattened, a victim of the construction of the I-285 freeway which prompted her to design the “Pig on Expressway”.
Doll sculptures are part of the exhibit, including “Untitled (Blue and Pink Doll”) made sometime before 1978 in fabric, yarn, fiberfill, acrylic wig and buttons.
In 1978 Rowe began to be represented by the gallerist Judith Alexander, which provided the artist with paper and pigments and orchestrated his first solo exhibition in Atlanta. Works created towards the end of his life, when Rowe suffered and suffered from multiple myeloma, are even more dynamic. She died in 1982.
The exhibition is accompanied by a six-minute video loop of images that will be part of “This world is not mine” a documentary about Rowe which will be released later this year. The exhibit also includes a large color photograph of the quirky, artful Playhouse and several black and white photographs of Nellie that capture what must have been her formidable and generous personality.
The ‘radical’ part of the exhibition’s title refers to Rowe’s reclamation of his youth and tenacity of self-expression – a ‘radical act of self-liberation’, according to the exhibition text.
Jessimi Jones, Executive Director of the Springfield Museum of Art, said she was delighted to introduce Nellie Mae Rowe and her work to new audiences.
“Now is the time to shine a light on artists who are important and worth watching but who have been overlooked and little known about,” Jones said.
In Nellie Mae Rowe’s colorful and richly detailed drawings, viewers will find a wealth of beautifully and imaginatively expressed memories and dreams – enough to guarantee that this is indeed an American artist worth knowing.
“Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe” continues through July 10 at the Springfield Museum of Art, 107 Cliff Park Road, Springfield. Opening hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5 adults, free for members 17 and under and EBT cardholders with Museums for All. Call 937-325-4673 or visit www.springfieldart.net.