Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe


Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe



In May of 1973, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a profile on Nellie Mae Rowe that drew more attention to her Playhouse. Later that month, she began keeping guestbooks where visitors recorded their signatures and sometimes left personal messages testifying to the impact she had on their lives. When Rowe’s friend and gallerist Judith Alexander gave a major gift of more than 130 of Rowe’s artworks to the High Museum in 2003, she also gave the Museum an archive that included two of Rowe’s guestbooks. As part of the 2021–2022 exhibition Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe, the Museum invites visitors to leave their own responses to Rowe’s art, continuing Rowe’s tradition of allowing people to leave their mark and express how she may have impacted them.

Rowe’s First Guestbook

Rowe is thought to have kept at least twelve guestbooks recording signatures and testimonials from her many visitors in the 1970s and 1980s, and the one digitized here was her first. Based on the inscription on the inside cover, the book was given to Rowe by friends in 1971, but she did not start using it until late May of 1973, about two weeks after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a major profile on her, which resulted in an influx of visitors to her home.

A Twenty-First Century Guestbook for Rowe

The testimonials reproduced here were left by guests of the 2021–2022 exhibition, Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. They were prompted with the following text:

“It is no longer possible to visit Nellie Mae Rowe’s Playhouse in Vinings, Georgia, as it was demolished shortly after her death, but this exhibition aims to bring the spirit of that place into the twenty-first century. After experiencing the exhibition, we hope you will take part in helping the Museum uphold Rowe’s legacy by sharing your encounter with her art today. Perhaps Rowe reminded you of someone you know or have been curious about or inspired you to think differently about dreams you have long held on to. We encourage you to sign and perhaps illustrate a page here that we will include in our Really Free guestbook, which will be published online alongside Rowe’s 1973 testimonials.”