Nellie Mae Rowe’s art is typically colorful, usually fanciful, at times autobiographical, and often inspired by her deep religious faith. She has been heralded as one of this country’s most significant self-taught African American artists, although national attention did not accrue until she was in her seventies. The ninth of ten children, Rowe was born in a farming community twenty miles south of Atlanta; her formal schooling came to an end in the fourth grade she began working in the cotton fields to help support the family. Her father, a formerly enslaved person, was a farmer and blacksmith; her mother was a seamstress and quilter who taught her daughter how to craft dolls and small sculptures. To escape this environment, Nellie Mae married at age sixteen. In 1930, she and her husband moved to Vinings, Georgia, which at the time was a rural community northwest of Atlanta; it has since been absorbed by the city’s sprawl. She lived there for over fifty years and was employed as a domestic servant.

After the 1948 death of her second husband, Rowe transformed their three-room frame home into her “playhouse,” where she made her multifaceted art. Like other African American artists such as Thornton Dial, she displayed many of her creations in the yard, hanging some from trees and combining them with plants and miscellaneous objects. Unfortunately, she was sometimes the victim of vandalism and theft by people who did not appreciate her desire to “decorate the outdoors.”

Not considering herself a professional artist, Rowe explained her compulsion to make things and her early fascination with drawing: “I ain’t gone to school to learn no work like that. I guessed at it when I was a little gal, just lay down on the floor and draw. . . . I just had to get my pencil and draw something. That was in me and it’s still in me.” Although she used an array of materials in her work—often merging them in collages and assemblages—she eventually developed a decided preference for colored pencils. Her imagery was based on her own life and dreams, and regularly featured animals, and trees; following a cancer diagnosis, Rowe began to incorporate an empty chair into her drawings. Sometimes she indulged in outright satire. Her pieces are frequently accompanied by texts she wrote herself.

Her inclusion in a 1976 exhibition at the Atlanta History Center marked a turning point in Nellie Mae Rowe’s career. Two years later, she was befriended by Judith Alexander, a gallery owner who hosted Rowe’s first one-artist exhibition. Alexander boosted Rowe’s enthusiasm for making art, often provided her with materials, and donated 130 pieces to the High Museum of Art. Six years after Rowe’s death in 1980, her work was showcased in an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem and again at the American Folk Art Museum in New York in 1999.