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Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe

This exhibition recreates the artistic renaissance that Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982) embarked on late in life, drawing, sewing, sculpting and decorating her “Playhouse” just outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

Exhibition Images

  • Nellie Mae Rowe, Real Girl, 1980, color photograph, crayon, ink, and pencil on cardboard, 14 x 11 inches, gift of Judith Alexander.

  • Nellie Mae Rowe, What It Is, 1978–1982, crayon, colored pencil, and pencil on paper, 21 x 21 ¼ inches, gift of Judith Alexander.

  • Nellie Mae Rowe, Untitled (Really Free!), 1967–1976, marker and crayon on book page, 5 x 7 ½ inches, gift of Judith Alexander.

  • Nellie Mae Rowe, Untitled (Dandy), 1978–1982, crayon and pencil on paper, 24 x 18 inches, gift of Harvie and Charles Abney.

  • Melinda Blauvelt, Nellie Mae Rowe, Vinings, Georgia 1971, printed 2021, silver gelatin print, 20 x 24 inches, gift of the artist.

About the Exhibition

During the last decade and a half of her life, Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982) lived on a busy thoroughfare just outside of Atlanta, Georgia and welcomed visitors to her “Playhouse,” which she decorated with found-object installations, handmade dolls, chewing-gum sculptures, and hundreds of drawings. Based on the High’s leading collection of Rowe’s art, this exhibition of about 50 works is the first to consider her practice as a radical act of self-expression and liberation in the post-Civil Rights era South.

Rowe created her first works as a child in rural Fayetteville, Georgia but only found the time and space to reclaim her artistic practice in the late 1960s, following the deaths of her second husband and longtime employer. As the first major exhibition on the artist in more than 20 years, Really Free will offer an unprecedented view of how Rowe cultivated her drawing practice late in life, starting with colorful, at times simple sketches on found materials in the 1960s and moving toward her most celebrated highly complex compositions on paper of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Through photographs and scenes from an experimental documentary on her life, which included an artful reconstruction of her Playhouse, visitors will experience the lively art environment she created in and outside of her home. Other sections of the show will explore themes in her work such as her depictions of women and her experimentation with materials, including her recycling of cast offs into her handmade dolls and dimensional drawings.

Tour Schedule

  • September 2021-January 2022

    High Museum of Art

    Atlanta, GA

  • March 19-July 10, 2022

    Springfield Museum of Art

    Springfield, OH

  • September 2, 2022-January 1, 2023

  • January 27, 2023-May 1, 2023

  • August 1, 2023-February 25, 2024

  • April 27, 2024-July 21, 2024

  • Fall/Winter 2024