Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe


Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe


Born on the Fourth of July

Nellie Mae Rowe wears a black shirt with white polkadots and stands in front of her home to the left of her front door. To the right of the door is a doll head wearing sunglasses perched on a post.

Melinda Blauvelt (American, born 1949), Nellie Mae Rowe, Vinings, Georgia (detail), 1971, printed 2021, gelatin silver print, 21 13/16 × 14 11/16 inches, gift of the artist, 2021.69. © Melinda Blauvelt.

By Katherine Jentleson

Nellie Mae Rowe was born an artist. She arrived the ninth of ten children to her parents, Sam Williams and Louella Swanson Williams, on a very memorable day: July 4, 1900. No existing records confirm her exact birthdate, but the claim she placed on Independence Day at the dawn of a new century reveals the esteem she held for her life and her relationship to freedom.

Rowe’s artistic talent shined from an early age, but she had little time to cultivate it between the farm labor of her youth and the domestic work of her adult years. By 1930, she had left her family’s farm in Fayetteville, Georgia, and moved to Vinings, a city just northwest of Atlanta, with her first husband, Ben Wheat. She remained there after Wheat’s sudden death, marrying Henry Rowe, who made her a widow for a second time in 1948.

For the next twenty years, Rowe lived alone and continued to work for a White family who had employed her in domestic service for decades. Once they, too, were deceased, she proclaimed, “Now I got to get back to my childhood, what you call playing in a playhouse.” In the last decade and a half of her life, she reclaimed her artistic birthright, welcoming visitors to her “Playhouse,” which she decorated with found-object installations, handmade dolls, chewing-gum sculptures, and hundreds of drawings.

The exhibition Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe (September 3, 2021–January 9, 2022, High Museum of Art, Atlanta) offers a new look at the many dimensions of her practice and recontextualizes her bold decision not to go quietly into her final years. For Rowe’s choice to practice art was not only a form of self-care but also a way of demanding the respect and visibility that she had so long been denied as a Black woman living in the American South. Though her work rarely directly addressed political or social concerns, it all emerged from a radical act of self-liberation that allowed her to imagine and create a world many degrees more beautiful than the one she knew.


Jentleson, Katherine. Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe, wall text. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, September 3 2021–January 9, 2022.

“Now I got to get back to my childhood, what you call playing in a playhouse.”

Nellie Mae Rowe