Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe


Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe


The Playhouse

A house stands at the center of the photograph, a bare tree in the courtyard in front of the house. The tree branches are decorated with a myriad of colorful ornaments and baubles. The courtyard is full of folding chairs and tables covered with an assortment of projects and flower arrangements.

Lucinda Bunnen (American, born 1930), Nellie Mae Rowe’s House, 1971, chromogenic print, collection of the artist. © Lucinda Bunnen.

By Katherine Jentleson

At the same time Rowe revived her drawing practice, she transformed her home and property on the busy thoroughfare of Paces Ferry Road into her Playhouse, creating what one writer for the Atlanta Daily World called “a complete artistic explosion.” Rowe filled pots and urns with plants, embellishing live ones with strands of artificial blooms, and strung garlands and clotheslines from tree branches, hanging them with Christmas ornaments, children’s toys, plastic fruit, and other items. Small pots lined the rails and posts of her fence, and until they became victims of vandalization, her handmade dolls occupied some of the many chairs placed throughout her yard.

The Playhouse was an everchanging work of art that also served as Rowe’s home and a place for social interaction with many curious visitors. “People started coming here taking pictures. [. . .] the traffic would be held up from the railroad clear up to here,” she remembered.

Art environments gained increasing respect from the art world and mainstream media as artworks worthy of documentation and preservation during Rowe’s lifetime, although her Playhouse was demolished not long after her death. Its legacy lives on here in her drawings of it as well as in pictures taken by photographers who visited her there beginning in the early 1970s. Those photographs also became source material for the filmmakers who have recreated the Playhouse as sets for their forthcoming film on Rowe.


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

“People started coming here taking pictures. [. . .] the traffic would be held up from the railroad clear up to here.”

Nellie Mae Rowe

Reimagining Rowe’s Playhouse

These images depict models of Rowe’s Playhouse that were created for This World is Not My Own, a hybrid documentary about Rowe’s life that will make its worldwide debut in 2022. Very little footage capturing Rowe or her Playhouse exists, so the filmmakers of Opendox were inspired by the more abundant photographs of the Playhouse to create this miniature model of her home and yard, as well as a larger reimagining of the interiors of her home, both of which are included in the exhibition.

Rowe’s insistence on playing and her creativity with everyday materials inspired the details of these sets, which include a tree made of popcorn, stepping-stones from wine corks, a table sitting on marker caps, and other whimsical items. Ruchi Mital, one of the filmmakers behind This World is Not My Own, writes about their approach to reimagining the Playhouse in the exhibition’s catalogue.