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In the thirty-six years between the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980 (1982) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift (2018), Black vernacular art from the southern United States became securely established within the “canon” of American art. Nellie May Rowe (1900–1982) was an abiding presence in these and other definitive exhibitions of that era. Viewers embraced her as a prolific visual poet who elevated the intimacies of domestic life to an angelic hierarchy of sublime memories, insightful portraiture, tenderly empathic tributes and elegies, and hard truths delivered with tenacious forbearance. With Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe, curator Katherine Jentleson offers the first consideration of Rowe’s practice in the context of developments that shaped the United States’ social climate, both nationally and locally, during a lifetime that spanned most of the twentieth century. These include the influence of the US civil rights movement of the 1960s, the rise of the Feminist movement, the disruptions of predatory urban expansion and Black removal, all consciously referenced and transmuted into the endogenous spiritual home ground of her art.
Both the exhibition and its catalog contextualize Rowe in ways that emphasize her engagement with history and the world around her. Jentleson’s deep immersion in the High Museum’s collection of Rowe’s drawings, dolls, and collages coincided with “the national trauma of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others,” she has said. “All of that made me think about Nellie and the radical nature of what she chose to do at the end of her life as an act of self-liberation. It wasn’t something that she was doing privately. It was something that she was demanding visibility for” (“Whose History of American Art?” interview by Logan Lockner, Atlanta Art Papers).
The installation tracked the course of Rowe’s apotheosis through four partitioned galleries in the basement floor of the museum, a peripheral but appropriately intimate space where her vibrant and brilliantly colored works were installed according to themes referencing different periods of her life, setting the stage for the nonlinear narrative of the exhibition: “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Experimentation,” “The Playhouse,” “Girlhood,” “At the Peak of Her Career,” and “Guests of the Playhouse.” These sections traced Rowe’s childhood love of drawing, which was suppressed by domestic responsibilities and the need to earn a living; her struggles with deterministic femininity; her release from these constraints after the death of her second husband and a long-time employer; followed by a creative explosion of drawing, sculpting, sewing, and place making in the once-rural community of Vinings, on the outskirts of Atlanta. Besides being her most prolific period of art making, the last decade of Rowe’s life was a time of reaching out to the public and integrating her social and family life with the demands of her art practice.
For many years, beginning in 1968, Rowe decorated her house and yard with carefully selected objects that carry spiritual connotations in the Black Atlantic tradition, such as bottle trees, shining reflective appliances and ornaments, throne-like seats set among toys, whimsical figurines, and other evocative cast-offs. She called her newly transformed environment her “Playhouse.” It was a dynamic space of change and regeneration that spawned many of her more familiar, autonomous art works. Rowe’s drawings emerged organically from the yard, which by 1971 was a full-blown spectacle and actual playground for the children in her extended family. Along the narrow two-lane road in front of her property, it was known to stop traffic. As in the drawings, brilliant color lent architectural coherence to the whole, greeting visitors and family with polychrome garlands and both real and artificial flowers strategically placed among the everyday tools of gardening, cleaning, and art making. Like other “dressed” yards in the Black Atlantic tradition, the Playhouse was an invitation to viewers to “come and see” on many different levels.
One of the first to answer that call was Judith Alexander (1932–2004), a trailblazing cultural activist and owner of one of Atlanta’s first contemporary art galleries, whose friendship and support gave Rowe financial stability and ultimately introduced her art to a global audience. Alexander made a personal gift of 134 of Rowe’s works to the High Museum in 2003, establishing the bedrock of what is now an expanding collection of 225 works, each reproduced in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog. Discussing the reciprocal relationship between Rowe’s drawings and her yard, Alexander stated, “Nellie’s yard was so famous. Her drawings relate to her first masterpiece—her environment. People thought that Nellie just hung things haphazardly but it’s not so. When Nellie would talk about it she used the word ‘place’ a lot: ‘I placed an object’” (“The Mind’s Eye”).
In the 1970s it was the norm for mostly white collectors and promoters of African American vernacular art to make road trips to artists’ homes, where they would view full bodies of work in progress and experience local communities they might otherwise have never approached. These immersive encounters sometimes assumed the aura of religious pilgrimages. The beauty and energy of artists’ home environments, many extending into their yards, offered a temporary respite from race-inflected anxieties and the physical and psychological distancing imposed on these communities by the weight of racism and intransigent neglect. Most of the visionary yards and artists’ sites of the past sixty years, including Rowe’s Playhouse, have been destroyed along with all traces of the neighborhoods that sheltered them. Conservation challenges aside, the complex social issues associated with these dismissed and undervalued sites, including the negative effects of gentrification, cultural dissonance, and flawed urban planning, remain mulishly persistent.
Besides nearly sixty works by Rowe, the High Museum’s installation included a miniature “re-imagination” of her house and yard. These scaled models were constructed by the New York–based documentary film studio Opendox, which was commissioned by the Judith Alexander Foundation to make a feature-length film about Rowe in 2015. The obsessively detailed model of the yard occupied a large platform sensitively placed in a corner of one of the galleries near a life-size photomural of the Playhouse, photographed by Lucinda Bunnen in 1971. Opendox’s “re-imagination” of Rowe’s environment offered an intricately layered composite of different points in time rather than a reproduction of a particular iteration of the house or yard. This was enhanced by the inclusion of photographs that record Rowe’s many revisions of the Playhouse over the years, as well as artifacts she collected and worked with (political and religious posters, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, and other historically charged ephemera that were mounted on the interior walls of the house), all of which contextualize her as a person “who struggles to dedicate her life to art while exploring the personal and political events that shaped her singular body of work.” These ephemeral objects and the re-creations of her environment model memory itself and supercharged the displayed drawings and dolls with fresh power while the seamlessness of Rowe’s creative process materializes as an all-embracing experience of an awakened mind. Thanks to the cross-referencing available through the photographs and models, the immense variety of imagery in Rowe’s drawings becomes thematically coherent and symbiotic without sacrificing the mystery and emotion at the core of her vision.
Jentleson’s decision to include sets from the Opendox film in the exhibition was a risky but ultimately essential curatorial leap of faith that sets Really Free apart from previous exhibitions of Rowe’s work and throws down the gauntlet for a more open-ended exploration of the many ways an artist remains relevant, particularly when they are exposed to new audiences beyond their native milieu. “That Rowe’s artwork—despite often being underestimated—has nonetheless held a presence within the mainstream art world for decades,” writes Jentleson, “is a testament to its power” (14).
The exhibition vastly expands Rowe’s reach and honors her career and life beyond predisposed impressions of self-taught artists and the many labels attached to them in the past. Its perimeters extend beyond the physical space of the museum via the extensive archives and linked features and reviews posted on the High Museum’s website. Like the exhibition itself, the catalog’s unpredictable and beautifully crafted essays and poetry, and its generous reproductions of the High Museum’s collection, evoke Rowe’s presence as an abiding spiritual constant that lingers. Really Free is thus one of the deepest and most accomplished expositions of a self-taught artist’s life and work ever assembled.
Professor Emeritus of Drawing and Painting,
Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia