Nellie Mae Rowe

American (1900–1982)

Rolling Tree Mule


Crayon and ink on paper

Gift of Martha and Jim Sweeny in memory of Judith Alexander


Rowe faced racism and discrimination, was widowed twice, and worked as a domestic for roughly thirty years. Born in Fayetteville, Georgia, she spent most of her life in Vinings, outside of Atlanta. Her parents were farmers and also made handicrafts: her father, born into slavery in 1851, smithed and made baskets; her mother made quilts. As a girl, Rowe made dolls out of rags and figures from chewing gum. In 1948, after the death of her second husband, she began making art, “something out of nothing.”

She saw her artistic life as a second childhood, terming her home “Nellie’s Playhouse.” Inspired by her past and Christian and African themes, her drawings and paintings unite memories and dreams, and her people, plants, and animals defy gravity. She appears in her works as a woman, but also disguised as dogs, butterflies, birds, or mules.



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