Many of the details of Rowe’s early and middle life remain obscure. This timeline offers a portrait of her life and art alongside a selection of the major local and national events in social, political, and cultural spheres that may have had an impact on her and the bold choice she made in her later years to reclaim her artistic birthright. Consideration was given especially to events shaping the social climate of Georgia and the Atlanta metro area during her lifetime. Events that were unlikely to have reached her directly but nonetheless impacted the eventual reception of her art and posthumous legacy are also illuminated.
2021 Souls Grown Deep Foundation Fellow Christian Reeder contributed research to this project.
Untitled (Nellie Mae Making It to Church Barefoot)
Nellie Mae Rowe is born on July 4, the ninth child to Sam Williams and Louella Swanson Williams. She spends her youth working on her family’s rented farm, with limited leisure time for making art. She attends school at her local church, Flat Rock African Methodist Episcopal Church, where one teacher identifies her artistic talent, saying, “If she had the chance, she [could] be an artist.”
Untitled (Woman with Red Fish)
During this decade, Rowe remains in Fayetteville. She would later say very little about her life during these years, although she did express some regret about her marriage to Wheat, saying, “If I had stayed home, I would have been better off.” While her sisters grew their families, she did not, and she later expressed regrets about not having biological children, which may have inspired the recurrence of fish—a common symbol of fertility—in her later work.
Untitled (Playhouse and Cross)
Rowe and Wheat move to Vinings, where her nephew Joe Brown Sr. has settled with his family. Wheat dies suddenly in a workplace accident in 1936, and Rowe’s mother passes the year after. Rowe stays with Brown and his family for several months following Wheat’s death until she weds Henry Rowe. By the end of the decade, they have begun residing on Paces Ferry Road, in the home that Rowe will ultimately transform into her Playhouse.
Please Let Me Be
Rowe begins earning income as a domestic worker for White families in the 1930s, and by 1940, she is working for Robert “Buddy” and Vera Smith, who remain her employers for more than twenty years. Her economic independence becomes particularly important after her husband Henry dies in 1948, allowing her to stay in their home. Her father passes away three years earlier, and in between his death and Henry’s, she creates this early drawing.
During this decade, Rowe lives alone for the first time in her life. She begins her return to art making but does not create with abundance while she is working for the Smiths. “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,” she would later say.
During this tumultuous decade that includes both major advances in civil rights and traumatic violence as a reaction to that progress, Rowe reclaims her artistic practice. By early 1969, her longtime employers the Smiths are both deceased, and she declares, “Now I got to get back to my childhood, what you call playing in a playhouse.”
Untitled (Nellie Riding Chicken)
Rowe’s artistry flourishes as she decorates her house, inside and out, with found-object installations from material that she preserves and which people increasingly bring to her as her art environment becomes more and more visible. She also begins drawing with frequency, including memories of her past and images from her subconscious, creating increasingly complex scenes that bring humans (especially women), animals, and her built environment into vibrant harmony.
i Have Laid This Wold A Side i Am Happy with Lord
Rowe receives a diagnosis of multiple myeloma in November of 1981 but continues to draw into 1982. She passes away on October 18, 1982, but has lived long enough to see that her work is being celebrated nationally. In many of her final works, she includes farewell messages that indicate that she is at peace.